The filmmaker on her movie, Palestinians in the Windy City, and how personal experiences can trump political arguments.
During the first Gulf War, Palestinian-American filmmaker Cherien Dabis’s family, living in Ohio, received death threats; the Secret Service even came to her high school to investigate a rumor that her seventeen-year-old sister threatened to kill the President. When Dabis entered Columbia University’s film school in September 2001, she found history repeating itself. “There was, and still is, incredible suspicion and fear of Arabs, even if they’re American. That was when I realized that it was time to sit down and write my version of the coming-to-America story.”
That version is Amreeka, which distributor National Geographic Entertainment is hailing as the first Arab-American film to get major theatrical distribution. The film, which opened in New York and Los Angeles on September 4 and expands to twenty more markets on September 18, follows the immigration of Muna and her son Fadi from Palestine to Chicago, where they come to live with Muna’s sister, Raghda, and her family. While the story opens in Palestine, where Muna and Fadi must deal with checkpoints, it mostly follows the mother and son’s struggles once they’ve arrived in the United States. Muna’s seed money is confiscated by customs agents, forcing her to work secretly at White Castle; Fadi has to deal with racist comments and bullying at school; and Muna’s sister’s family is strained when anti-Arab sentiment begins to erode her husband’s business.
Calling Amreeka a comedy may be too broad, but it’s filled with humor and good-natured moments. While it’s being marketed with phrases like “feel-good” and “warm-hearted,” even Dabis admits that not all viewers will leave the theater feeling that way, especially with an ending that is anything but neatly wrapped. The film turns on a revisitation—of a kind—of the Secret Service moment from 1991, when Fadi’s Jewish school principle (and Muna’s new dining companion) stands up to overzealous police acting on behalf of the War on Terror’s detention mentality. “I wanted the ending to feel bittersweet,” says Dabis. “Some people take the bitter away and other people take the sweet away.” Dabis depoliticizes the politics, so to speak, by taking religion mostly out of the equation; both Dabis’s own and the film family are Christian Palestinians.
Despite Dabis going to great lengths to make Amreeka about the characters and avoid political comment, the film likely will, as Variety’s Rob Nelson wrote, “meet reflexive derision in some quarters for seeming too PC or not political enough.” While Dabis doesn’t shy away from conversation about the political elements of her film, she clearly would rather people focused on the story and characters, and finds her safe haven by bringing the conversation back to the genesis of the film. “When I talk about my own personal experience,” she says, “it is hard for people to have the political arguments.”
Michael Archer for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve said that this film, in a sense, has been with you since you were fourteen years old. It’s loosely based on your family’s experience here in the States during the first Gulf War, right?
Cherien Dabis: Right. What happened to us really stayed with me. But I didn’t know at first if I wanted to tell that particular story. I just knew that there was no authentic representation of Arab-Americans in the media, and I wanted to just tell a story. I didn’t know exactly what. When I was first approaching the idea of telling that story was when I decided to go to film school. I was looking at it more as first generation teenager, coming-of-age story. Then I read about a little movie called Towelhead and I thought, “Okay, that’s very interesting; it’s exactly what I was thinking.” That movie combined with a number of other films coming out were just all so sobering and somber and dramatic. It was the climate of those films that got me thinking about the fact that we needed something light, some levity and humor. I thought that that would be a way to make the story that much more accessible. That was really the turning point for me for going from shooting the story too much through my own point of view and then starting to take it outside my point of view and look for another sort of lens through which I could tell the story.
Guernica: You’ve said you wanted a hand in changing the images associated with being Arab. How does Amreeka do that?
Cherien Dabis: I think in Amreeka, for the first time, we get to see a family that just happens to be Arab live their daily lives. We see them struggling to do things that just about anyone could relate to. Struggling with their mortgage, struggling to fit in at school. We also can see the struggles that are very specific to where they come from and who they are. Struggling to find a sense of belonging, even within their own house. Everyone is sort of displaced in their own home. So, I think for the first time, there’s an authentic portrayal of who this specific immigrant community is. Really putting the humanity first, or looking at it through a human perspective rather than a political perspective or an issue-driven perspective. And in this, the politics really take the back seat. Unfortunately, it is not something that we have seen before, at least not in the U.S. National Geographic is calling this the first Arab-American film to receive major theatrical distribution. It shocks me that this is actually the case.
Guernica: Do you think that it is even possible to tell a Palestinian family story without having any of the politics at all?
Cherien Dabis: The fact is that there still is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and there will be for some time. I think that you have to mention it within its context because it is still happening, and it is very relevant to who we are. The thing about this story is that these characters simply want to live their lives, but they are constantly being politicized by the people around them, which is somewhat my experience being a Palestinian, you know, growing up in the Diaspora.
Guernica: I read one review of the film that said for some people this movie is not going to be political enough and for other people it’s going to be too political. Does that stuff go through your mind when you are writing or making the film?
Cherien Dabis: I think it went through my mind when I was writing the film, and I certainly got those notes. I [heard] everything, from “the movie is too culturally specific” to “it’s too light,” “it needs to be more political,” “it needs to be less political.” All of that and at the end of the day, I just had to find my own balance for the film and take the notes that I felt fit into the kind of story I wanted to tell. I wanted the story to be politically relevant because I think it has to be; otherwise, you are in a certain level of denial about the situation and who we are as Palestinians. But I also didn’t want the politics to take over the movie. I very much wanted them to be part of the context of the movie, but I wanted really the people and the characters to stick out and their lives and their relationships, and their family dynamics to really be the heart of the story.
Guernica: Can you talk about the experience of shooting in the West Bank, in Ramallah?
Cherien Dabis: The experience of shooting there was actually really great. I had shot a short film in the region, in the West Bank, and that experience was kind of a nightmare because that was my first time and I didn’t know the right people and I wasn’t able to navigate the logistics. I was working from Tel Aviv and taking it through the checkpoints myself; it was a treacherous situation.
This time around, because I knew what we needed, we brought on a really experienced Palestinian line producer who was able to help us navigate the politics. We had permission from the Palestinian Authority, we had an Israeli customs agent making sure that our equipment got in okay, and that our film was processed and then got out okay. We had an Israeli producer ready in case we needed him, if we got into any trouble. The logistics and the planning of the logistics was still a little bit of a nightmare because it takes so much work. For example, we shipped our equipment in from Canada and had to hire an Israeli driver and rent a truck to have it driven from Israel all the way to the checkpoint. Then we had to have all of the equipment transferred to a Palestinian truck with a Palestinian license plate in order to get it into the West Bank. So it was that kind of thing that you would normally never have to do anywhere else. My biggest challenge shooting in the West Bank was working with the seventy-four-year-old non-actor who played Muna’s mother. She couldn’t remember her lines. That was really my biggest challenge working in the West Bank.
Guernica: What about the shot of the wall? How did you pull that off?
Cherien Dabis: It was our last day of shooting in the West Bank and we were on our lunch break in Bethelehem. From the restaurant where I was sitting, I saw a Palestinian electrical truck drive up, a huge crane on the back of it. Two guys got out and started to set up the crane to change a burnt out street light nearby. I had always wanted a shot of the wall snaking across the landscape, but from the ground, we hadn’t been able to find the right vantage point. And we would’ve never been able to afford a crane. So when I saw the crane on the back of this truck, a light bulb went off. I ran outside to talk to the driver about the film and begged him to let my DP into his crane for two minutes so that we could get an aerial shot of the wall. He said no. It was too dangerous. He could get into a lot of trouble. I continued begging. This is our opportunity to show people that this is no security fence, it’s a 30-foot-high solid concrete wall that cuts villages in half and keeps Palestinians from their land. At some point, I must’ve struck the right chord. Either that or the guy wanted to get rid of me because he leaned in and said, “Very quickly. Hurry up.” He took my DP up in his crane for literally two minutes, as we got two takes of Muna’s car driving down the street then tilt up to reveal the wall zigzagging across the landscape. We used the second take. And when I say we used it, I mean we used every single frame of that second take.
Guernica: What about the checkpoint scene? That’s potentially the most political part of the movie. You have to be very careful to handle that deftly, right?
Cherien Dabis: I just handled it is as realistically as possible. I’ve been through dozens of checkpoints, and I really just made it true to what I have seen and my experience and also, you know, what I have heard from other Palestinians and what can happen at a checkpoint.
Guernica: I was recently in Palestine in May and…
Cherien Dabis: Oh, really?
Guernica: I kept thinking about how it’s viewed in the U.S. There are some who believe you can speak more freely about the situation in Israel than you can in, say, New York. It seems like there is a segment that is going to be looking at this part, the checkpoints, as victimization. “Here we again see that the soldiers are bad…”
Cherien Dabis: It’s very common that people think that this is propaganda in some way. That was one person’s comment, and it had everything to do with the fact that they saw the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint, you know, interacting with Palestinians the way that they do in the movie. It’s just amazing to me that they draw that conclusion without knowing anything about what actually takes place. I don’t really know how to respond to that other than to say that hopefully for some people it will shed some light and they will be open minded enough to look at it and say, “Wow, I really didn’t know that that was happening,” rather than a knee-jerk, defensive reaction which is sort of to be in denial about what is happening and just dismiss the film entirely because you see a checkpoint, you see the actual side of occupation in the movie. You know what I mean?
Guernica: Yeah. Because there is that jump from describing or showing a checkpoint, for example, to, “Well they were offered a two-state solution, so it’s their bed…”
Cherien Dabis: My hope for the film is that people aren’t politicizing it, which is why I kept it personal and as much from the points of view of the characters as possible. I had an interview yesterday with a Jewish publication and someone brought up when Raghda says to her daughter, “As long as you live in this house, you live in Palestine.” And the reporter asked, “Aren’t you worried that, for some people, Palestine doesn’t exist? Aren’t you worried that you have a character say as long as you live in Palestine… as if it is a place that exists?” And I said, “I am not here to argue the politics of whether or not Palestine exists. The reality is that for many Palestinians, Palestine more than exists and that you can’t deny.” So this is the situation. I have been to Palestine, you have been to Palestine, we have been through checkpoints, this is our experience. That you can’t deny. We are not arguing about what the solution is here, we are arguing… Actually, there is no argument. This happens to be the experience of many people, and I try to talk about the movie as a very personal film, which it is. And the thing that I find is when I talk about my own personal experience, it is hard for people to have the political arguments.
Guernica: The Sundance description of your film called it “warm and lighthearted.” I know there is a marketing angle, but do you look at it as “warm and lighthearted”? Or as a “feel-good movie?”
Cherien Dabis: I definitely look at it as a warm film; I think there is a lot of warmth in the film. And I think that at times it can definitely be lighthearted because of Muna. I think she is a lighthearted character. So I wouldn’t say that those terms don’t describe the movie at all. It’s hard, you know? I am not a marketing person, and I have made something that is very difficult for people define. I have made a movie that is 50 percent English and 50 percent Arabic. It’s about an Arab-American community. People don’t know whether it’s a comedy or a drama. It, you know, sort of escapes definition, kind of like me.
I’ve always felt like I wasn’t American enough to be American but not Arab enough to be Arab, so I made a movie that could have that same dilemma. The marketing people came in and said, “Okay, what makes this movie different? What’s the best way we can sell this film?” If people want to consider it a “feel-good movie,” great. I don’t have any objections to that. Because we have never had that before. If that’s what we need to get people into the theater, for them to think it’s a “feel-good movie,” great. Some people walk out and think the ending is depressing because it is a little open-ended and is not neatly tied in a bow. I wanted the ending to feel bittersweet—some people take the bitter away and other people take the sweet away. So maybe they used the term “feel-good” because most Palestinian films are so incredibly bleak, sobering, and somber.
Guernica: Do you think in order for a film with a Palestinian subject matter to have some commercial success or wide distribution that your hands are tied somewhat, as a writer and director? That it can’t be too dark, for example, and if you want a larger audience, you have to take a different approach to storytelling?
Cherien Dabis: I think on a certain level, yeah, that is true. In order for something to really hit, especially as a cross-over, most likely you shouldn’t be too political, somber, or dark. Luckily, that’s not my personality. I like films that have a sense of hope. We already have so many portrayals of the reality of the situation over there, and all of those portrayals are necessary. I absolutely think we need them. But my own experience is not one of growing up under occupation, but of growing up in a very loud and proud and loving and warm Arab home. I wanted to share that because no one gets to see this side of who we are.
I was shopping it around at a time when people wanted dramas about the Iraq War. I really thought Amreeka was going to end up being a little movie and now, you know, it still is in many ways. But it definitely has a potential, and the fact that National Geographic is on board and there is a whole army of people working on the movie, really trying to get it out there, it has definitely grown way beyond what I thought it would do.
Guernica: Do you feel that Palestinian artists need to support one another regardless of your feelings about a project?
Cherien Dabis: Absolutely, yes.
Guernica: If there were a Palestinian film or novel that was doing really well and you didn’t particularly care for it, would you still do your best to support it?
Cherien Dabis: I would and I have. Definitely. If there is something in the politics, or there is something on a larger level that I didn’t agree with, then I would maybe just leave the film alone and not say one thing or the other. But [otherwise] I think we absolutely need to support one another.
Cherien Dabis: Because I think we are building a cinema; we need to support one another to ensure that we can keep telling these stories. If we don’t support one another, how can we expect other people to see the movies if we aren’t even going to support our own fellow filmmakers or fellow storytellers? Whether it’s film or literature or poetry or stand-up comedy, we all seem to put our stories out there and get more realistic portrayals of who we are out to the world. That is something that I think we all need to support because that is the only way that we are going to be able to continue doing it.
Guernica: Talk a bit about the opening.
Cherien Dabis: Right now we are doing a five-week national roll out, whereby we are going to be on, I believe, fifty screens by early October and, depending on how the film does in its first week, we definitely have the potential to expand much larger than that. National Geographic is sort of up and ready, and they have been great. So far, the press tour has been amazing. We are trying to get the word-of-mouth campaign started, and there seems to be a buzz about the film. So we’ll see.
Guernica: Do you feel a lot of pressure being the face of the Palestinian immigrant experience to a larger-than-normal audience?
Cherien Dabis: I am definitely nervous for the opening, let’s put it that way. I [was] very nervous for September 4, which is New York and Los Angeles. Then, in some ways, September 18 is even bigger because we are going to be expanding to twenty markets. I think what makes me feel the pressure is the fact that the film has a lot of potential, and I would love for it to live up to that potential. But at some point it is out of my hands; I just have to surrender to the fact that I’ve done everything I can. I will continue to promote the movie as much as possible. But at some point I just have to surrender to [audiences]. Are they going to see the film or not?
Guernica: You seem to be describing every filmmaker’s or writer’s feelings when they release something to the world.
Cherien Dabis: I think so. At a certain point, you have to wish for the best, that you have done your best, that you are working with great people and they’ve done everything they can, and you just have to hope that all of the good buzz and everything translates into people actually going to the theater.
Guernica: How did National Geographic come aboard?
Cherien Dabis: National Geographic was supportive of me early on in my career. They gave me, through the All Roads Film Project, a grant of ten thousand dollars to make my short film. So what I was talking about before, that I shot in the West Bank, it was called Make a Wish and so, that grant really enabled me to make that short film and that short film gave me the experience of working in the West Bank. The short ended up doing really well; it turned like eleven international awards, and I think it was really what enabled me to get the financing to make Amreeka. So in some ways, they really helped move my career forward in a meaningful way. I think it was back in 2006 that Alicia Weston from the Sundance Institute put me in touch with National Geographic Films because they were apparently looking to start investing in fiction films. So they read the script and they really liked it and kept tracking it, but they didn’t get involved in the financing side. It wasn’t until the world premiere at Sundance that they saw the film. They were there at the screening and loved it and put their offer in right away.
Guernica: Did you have interest from other companies?
Cherien Dabis: National Geographic beat out two other offers from smaller distributors. As far as sort of the mainstream distributors, like Magnolia Pictures or Sony Pictures Classics, the funny thing is that no one really passed on the movie, no one outwardly said no, but also they didn’t seem willing to take the risk on it. They just wanted to wait and see what would happen. So, we had to make a decision and, ultimately, National Geographic just had so much passion and so much enthusiasm for the film. They have never released a fiction film. This is their first. So in many ways we were at first a little bit skeptical of that, or worried that they hadn’t done it before. But ultimately, it ended up being such an amazing fit because our being their first meant that they were going to put that much more into the release of the film.
Guernica: Talk about the cast. They are not all Palestinian, but mostly.
Cherien Dabis: They are almost all Palestinian. Nisreen Faour, who plays Muna is Palestinian, so is Yussuf Abu-Warda (Nabeel), Hiam Abbass (Raghda), Melkar Muallem (Fadi), and the two youngest girls—one is Lebanese Palestinian and the other one is Jordanian, I believe Palestinian Jordanian. Alia Shawkat, who plays the eldest niece, the one who was on Arrested Development, she is actually half Iraqi. She is the only one of the main cast who is not Palestinian.
Guernica: It sounds like it was quite a process, casting this movie.
Cherien Dabis: It certainly was. It was definitely an intense casting process. I am sure you read about how I was all over the U.S. and all over the Middle East. I had casting sessions all over the place. First, we started in the U.S. We went to New York, Dearborn, Los Angeles, Chicago. And we were getting tapes in from all over the country. I started to realize that I wasn’t finding people who felt really authentic. I think because I was auditioning people who already were in the U.S. They almost felt too American for the lead roles of Muna and Fadi. I needed people who felt more Palestinian than they did American, so I realized I needed to go to the Middle East. I [searched] everywhere from Beirut to Al-Ahmed to Jerusalem to Haifa to Ramallah and Bethlehem. I was all over the region basically and getting tapes in and watching everything from Middle Eastern and Palestinian films to bad Syrian soap operas just looking for that talent. It was really in Palestine and Israel that I found those four main people. Hiam Abbass, her work I was familiar with; she is the most well known actor in the film. Nisreen Faour, who plays Muna, and Yussuf Abu-Warda, who plays Nabil, I found in Haifa, and there is quite a large Palestinian acting community there. The kid who plays Fadi I found in Ramallah.
Guernica: So everywhere.
Cherien Dabis: Yeah, everywhere. I found them in casting sessions and the same with Alia Shawrat. I was a huge fan of hers on Arrested Development and when I found out she was half Iraqi, I just thought, this is great. I met her and she is just so… she really is Salma, that kind of fiery, political, opinionated person. She just seemed perfect for that role. And she was happy also to be able to do something that was Arab-American themed because that is very much a part of who she is.
Guernica: What’s next? How do you see future projects evolving? Do you plan on always having some kind of Palestinian focus or would you like to make broader films?
Cherien Dabis: You know, I am not over-thinking that right now. What got me to this point was really just following my gut and being passionate about a story and being certain that that was what I needed to do. I am lucky enough to have yet another story in me that I really want to tell, so I am working on that. It does happen to be Arab-American themed as well. It’s sort of the reverse of Amreeka, actually. It’s about an Arab-American who goes to Jordan to plan her summer wedding, despite the fact that her whole family disapproves of the groom. So, it’s a little bit more of a comedy than Amreeka, but it’s a dramatic comedy and it’s very much about family.
Guernica: Another one that could be termed “warm” and “lighthearted” and “feel-good”?
Cherien Dabis: (Laughs) Oh man, when you say it like that, it does make me feel a little soft. Yeah, the next one is going to be different. It is going to be a different tone and sort of explore a different world. I think it will be somewhat edgier than Amreeka. I don’t know that those terms would work necessarily. I wouldn’t call it “lighthearted.” Its humor might be more cynical than Amreeka’s. We’ll see. I am still in the process of writing it, so who knows what it will actually turn into. I am almost finished with my first draft, so that’s what I am working on right now. I definitely don’t plan to just make Arab-American films. I want to broaden my storytelling, even though thematically it might fit within a similar sort of genre.
Guernica: It is interesting, somewhat disheartening, that certain writers or directors become identity writers or directors, even if their body of work doesn’t justify it. “Oh yeah, that’s the Arab filmmaker or that’s the Jewish filmmaker or that’s the Chinese filmmaker…” Whatever it is, you know?
Cherien Dabis: Actually, I don’t mind. I mean, that’s a really big part of who I am; I have spent many years exploring that in this movie and my next one; the issue of identity will be a common theme in all of my work. It is definitely something that has been a preoccupation of mine my whole life.
Guernica: So there is likely not a Titanic in your future?
Cherien Dabis: Definitely not a Titanic. That’s for certain.
Guernica, September 2009