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. Continue reading →
Cherien Dabis is having one of those dreamlike weeks. She was named one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch in 2009, and her film Amreeka had its world premiere at Sundance this past weekend to a standing ovation and positive reviews. Now all she needs to do it sell the film and get an agent.
Not being in Sundance, I haven’t seen the film but if I were there, it would been tops on my list. Here’s the description from the catalog:
Director Cherien Dabis’s auspicious debut feature, Amreeka, is a warm and lighthearted film about one Palestinian family’s tumultuous journey into Diaspora amidst the cultural fallout of America’s war in Iraq. Muna Farah, a Palestinian single mom, struggles to maintain her optimistic spirit in the daily grind of intimidating West Bank checkpoints, the constant nagging of a controlling mother, and the haunting shadows of a failed marriage. Everything changes one day when she receives a letter informing her that her family has been granted a U.S. green card. Reluctant to leave her homeland, but realizing it may be the only way to secure a future for Fadi, her teenage son, Muna decides to quit her job at the bank and visit her relatives in Illinois to see about a new life in a land that gives newcomers a run for their money.Dabis weaves an abundance of humor and levity into this tale of struggle, displacement, and nostalgia and draws an absorbing and irresistibly charming performance from actress Nisreen Faour as Muna, who stands at the heart of this tale. Amreeka glows with the truth and magic of everyday life and signals the arrival of an exciting, new directorial talent.
She took a couple of minutes to discuss the film and her Sundance experience.
Women & Hollywood: What made you want to make this film?
Cherien Dabis: The story is quite personal, inspired by my family and loosely based on true events. I grew up in a small town in Ohio of about 10,000 people. I actually grew up between Ohio and Jordan but most of my time was spent in this small town where as Arab Americans we were isolated because there was no Arab community and not a whole lot of diversity. For a while everything was fine and we fit in relatively well until the first Gulf War when my family was scapegoated and overnight we virtually became the enemy. All kinds of absurd things happened. My father who is a physician lost a lot of his patients because they wouldn’t support an Arab doctor and then it came to a head when the Secret Service came to my high school to investigate a rumor that my 17 year old sister threatened to kill the president.