For her feature debut Amreeka, writer-director Cherian Dabis filmed well away from her birthplace in Omaha, Neb.. But the movie's portrayal of prejudice towards Arabs was close to home for the 33-year-old, whose previous writing credits include episodes for The L Word.
The story of Muna (Nisreen Faour), a Palestinian single mom making her way in the U.S. was largely shot in Winnipeg in the spring of 2008, though the story is set in a suburb in Illinois where Muna gets a job at a White Castle restaurant, a comedown after working in banking in her native West Bank.
It is at the house of Muna's sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass) where the film becomes almost autobiographical when it comes to portraying the tribulations of an Arab-American family.
Dabis talked to the Free Press on a publicity tour for the film.
RK: Apart from the absence of a White Castle restaurant, how was shooting in Winnipeg as a substitute for Illinois?
CD: It was great! Manitoba Film & Music was extremely helpful and the crew was incredibly skilled, swift and so friendly! Plus we got snow in May, which I was praying for! We would've never gotten that in Illinois.
RK: Given that the movie does portray some anti-Arab sentiment in the U.S., exacerbated by the war in Iraq, was shooting in Canada a less prickly proposition, or was it just a case of tax incentives and a cheaper dollar?
CD: It was simply the tax incentives combined with the fact that Manitoba offered us provincial equity for shooting the film there. That was huge! It enabled us to close our financing and go into production sooner rather than later.
RK: You were raised in the Midwest by a Jordanian mother and a Palestinian father, so is your own growing-up experience during the first Gulf War closer to the family of Muna's sister Raghda?
CD: Yes. I was one of the first generation nieces in the film. In fact, my experience most closely resembles that of the oldest niece (played by Alia Shawkat), the one defending the Arabs in the classroom and the Americans to her Arab parents. And similar to the family in the film, during the first Gulf War, my family was really scapegoated. My father lost many of his patients because people suddenly decided that they didn't want to support an Arab doctor. We got death threats on a daily basis for a time. And in real life, things were actually much worse than they are in the film: the Secret Service came to my high school to investigate a tip that my older sister allegedly threatened to kill the president. My 17-year-old sister! That was the pinnacle of absurdity that served as the turning point in my own coming of age!
RK: There is something of a dearth of Arab voices in western cinema. Did that compel you as a writer and now a director to fill a void?
CD: Absolutely. I was 14 years old during the first Gulf War. And what my family experienced 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. I wanted to have a hand in changing that.
RK: Amreeka is unexpectedly comic. When I heard the basic plot prior to your filming here, I assumed it was a heavy drama. Why did you choose to give Muna's story a comic spin?
CD: I knew that I was dealing with potentially heavy material and the last thing I wanted was to be didactic. On the contrary, I wanted it to tell an authentic human story that was relatable, appealing and entertaining. In order to accomplish that, I chose to tell the story through the eyes of a woman who believes that people are inherently good and trustworthy. Muna is somewhat of an unexpected character -- a Palestinian single mom who has every reason to be cynical but is instead filled with naïve hope. It's, in large part, her point of view that lends itself to the humour in the script. She's disarming to the point where even if people want to find her suspicious, they have a hard time. And if they do, it's laughable because we, the audience, know how absolutely harmless she is.
RK: What has the reaction been to the film stateside?
CD: Our reviews have been stellar and our opening weekend was fantastic. We're in our eighth week in theatres all over the U.S. and have bookings all the way through the end of December. Audience members walk out of the theatre and say things like: "Anyone who comes from a family can relate to this film." Or: "Anyone who's ever felt like an outsider can relate." So it's been remarkably encouraging.
RK: When Winnipeg's Nia Vardalos came out with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Greek-Americans turned out in droves to support the film, one of the reasons it became a hit. Were there plans to market your film to Arab-American audiences?
CD: For sure! They were a huge part of our grassroots efforts in the United States. In fact, we had an unprecedented number of cultural and community partners on the film. Arab, Muslim and progressive Jewish organizations included. So we relied heavily on the word of mouth of the Arab American community.
RK: To what extent has the film been seen in the Middle East, and what has been the reaction?
CD: It premiered at the Al-Kasaba Film Festival in Ramallah earlier this month where the reception was really emotional and extremely warm. We got a 15-minute standing ovation! It also went on to play at the Beirut International Film Festival where we won the audience award for Best Feature Film and Best Director. So it's been incredible thus far. We're currently out in theatres in the West Bank and Lebanon. We'll soon be screening at the Cairo International Film Festival then releasing in Egypt. And the Dubai International Film Festival premiere will precede our Gulf release in December. So my fingers are crossed that the terrific response continues!
Amreeka is now playing at the Grant Park Cinema.