An Interview with Cherien Dabis, the Woman Behind Amreeka

by Special Correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie

Fatemeh Fakhraie spoke with Cherien Dabis, the director behind the film Amreeka, a story about a Palestinian woman and her son as they adjust to their new life in America.

It seems that your experiences as an Arab-American have really shaped the way you tell stories. I remember reading in another interview of yours that the story behind Amreeka is a personal one. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Cherien Dabis: The story is very much inspired by my family and the love, strength and pride that held us together during a difficult time. I grew up in a small town in Ohio where there was no anonymity. So everyone knew that my parents were Arab and that we spoke Arabic at home and went away to Jordan and the West Bank every summer. That was all it took for people to treat us differently. Mostly they were just ignorant, asking questions like: Are there cars in Jordan? It wasn’t until the first Gulf War when ignorance turned into racism. My father – who’s a physician – lost a lot of his patients because people didn’t want to support an Arab doctor. We got death threats on a daily basis. And the secret service even visited my high school because of a tip that they got that my 17 year-old sister allegedly threatened to kill the president. I was 14 years old at the time and actually lost a lot of my friends, that’s how ostracized we were. When a so-called friend came up to me at my locker one day and said, “my brother could go to war and die because of you,” I knew it had gone too far. I knew that I needed to try to do something about it. But not only is the film loosely based on what happened to my family in 1991, my family members also inspire the characters in the film. In fact, the main character Muna is inspired by my Aunt who immigrated to the U.S. with her teenaged son in 1997. What struck me about my aunt was her attitude. She was so full of hope and optimism, despite the daily challenges that she faced. She was so trusting of people that she unknowingly disarmed them. Even people who didn’t want to like her or would have otherwise been suspicious of her couldn’t help but ultimately fall in love with her. It’s this quality that inspired Muna. When I sat down to write the script, I kept thinking: If more people were like my aunt, the world would be a better place.

When making Amreeka, did you feel the need to portray things a certain way to satisfy certain politics or placate all parties?

CD: No. I set out to tell a story from a humanist perspective about who we are as everyday people, without all the politics that too often defines who we are. So while the context is political, the heart of the story is the relationship between the mother and son. That was my focus.

Do you feel that you face any discouragement or hostility for Amreeka, from any political, religious, or social groups?

CD: No, actually the response has been remarkably encouraging, across the board, both in the Western world and in the Middle East. Audience members have walked out of the theater and saying things like: anyone who comes from a family can relate to this film. Or anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider can relate. I wanted to show a world where religion and politics becomes secondary to the humanity that the characters share. That’s how it should be.

In an interview with Film Independent you talk about your next project, which is kind of the reverse of Amreeka. Could you tell us more about that?

CD: Sure. It’s another cross-cultural story, a dramatic comedy about a Palestinian-American who goes to Jordan to plan her summer wedding despite the fact that her entire family disapproves of the groom. I’m currently working on the third draft of the script and hope to shoot it this fall in Jordan.

Though Amreeka focuses on the mother/son relationship, there are definitely stereotype-breaking elements to the film, and it sounds like your next film will have similar themes. Do you feel that this is a large part of how you tell stories and make films?

CD: Absolutely. What my family experienced during the first Gulf War really opened my eyes. I became obsessed with the media and the stereotypes it perpetuated. I realized that there were virtually no authentic portrayals of Arabs anywhere in popular culture so I made a conscious choice to try to do something about that.

I grew up feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere because I was neither Arab enough for the Arabs or American enough for the Americans. So the only way my life would make any sense was if I was able to bridge the gap between these two vastly different worlds, shatter their misconceptions and help them understand one another better. I started naturally doing this through storytelling. I would tell my American friends about my life in the Arab world. And would tell my Arab family about my life in the U.S. I desperately wanted to bring them closer. It was this conundrum that led to my need for artistic expression. My personal goal as a filmmaker is to continue making socially responsible films that are accessible to mainstream audiences. Of course my passion is in specifically telling Middle Eastern stories because I see that as my unique contribution.

Do you have any advice for Arab-Americans or other people of color who are interested in getting into acting and filmmaking?

CD: My first advice is to just do it! Believe in yourself enough to take the risk, even if you don’t have the support. Don’t let fear get the better of you. If you don’t invest in yourself, why should anyone else? Gather the tools that you need to do the best job you can. Then will your work in fruition. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission. You have to make it happen yourself. Film is a really powerful medium with which to tackle people’s misconceptions. It utilizes the universal language of emotion to tell a story. Therefore, it has the potential to give people new eyes and ears from which to see the world. There is a huge void of Arab-American voices in the industry, so we need to fill it together. Not to mention, we have so many stories to tell, and we could use some more of them right about now!

From my own experience, I can say that the biggest obstacle I faced with Amreeka was in finding the financing. I think it had something to do with the fact that I’m an Arab American woman (emphasis on the Arab American) making a movie about the Arab immigrant experience in post 9-11 America. When I started looking for a producer and financing, a lot of the feedback that I was getting was that Amreeka was “too light,” either “too political” or “not political enough” or “too culturally specific,” which could only mean too Arab! And much like me, the film didn’t fit into any one category. It wasn’t American enough for the Americans and wasn’t foreign enough for the Europeans. After dozens of very nice rejections, I realized that I needed to look to my own community and partner with producers and financiers who shared my passion for telling this specific story. I ended up partnering with three Arab female producers, and together, we found financing mostly through Arab American private equity and pre-sales in the Middle East – at a time when no one thought it was possible. So what could’ve been a challenge – being an Arab American woman – instead became a huge advantage. So look to your own community for support! And encourage others in the community to support the arts! We need you!

Amreeka is now available on DVD by Virgil Films & Entertainment.

Special thanks to Latoya Peterson and Yusra Tekbali for their help on this.