Sundance Interview: Cherien Dabis, Director of Amreeka

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.

It was an eye opening time, my coming of age. I became politicized, and very aware of the media and how the media were perpetuating the stereotypes that were directly effecting us. So I decided to become a storyteller. I don't know if it was as conscious a decision as that, but I was knew that I wanted to do something that would change the way the media related to Arabs, to change the way we were represented. To also change the fact that we are underrepresented. I simply wanted to get our stories out there because we have so many and I thought if people could see it from our point of view they would realize how funny and absurd it is.

W&H: Is the film contemporary?

CD: The film is relatively contemporary. It's a soft period piece and takes place during the 2nd Iraq invasion in 2003.

W&H: You are trying to give a different vision of Arabs and breakthrough typical Hollywood stereotypes.

CD: People can be lazy in their storytelling and then characters become one dimensional and easy to villanize. Then it becomes the story of good vs. evil rather than people are people. I think it is much more difficult to create characters that are complex, rich and multidimensional and it's easy to fall back on the formulaic stereotypes.

W&H: This film seems quite timely with what just happened in the Middle East.

CD: The film is not really political. It's political in context but the heart of the story is the relationship between the mother and son. It's the story of a woman who desperately wants to secure a better future for her son and will do anything for him including leave her homeland and start over completely. She wants to flee her controlling mother, her failed marriage and start anew to get to be someone else, somewhere else. The backdrop of the film is the adversity they have to overcome and the stereotypes and prejudices that people have about Arabs and those are some of the challenges she faces. But she is optimistic and hopeful and she surprises others with her optimism.

W&H: Do you think it's a good time for this film to come out? Will people be more receptive to it now?

CD: Absolutely. We have a president with an Arab middle name. He's the first African American president. There is a feeling of hope. It's a new era. Barack Obama represents the new America and in some way my film represents the America that this country should be -- what this country could be if people were a little more open, friendly, trusting and accepting like Muna. So much of this business is about timing and the timing is really good with the change in the administration.

W&H: It's hard for people to make films nowadays, harder for women's stories, harder for a woman writer and director and even harder for stories about women of color. Talk about the struggles to get this film made.

CD: I started writing it in 2003 when I was a graduate student at Columbia studying film. I already spoke about my experience in 1991 and exactly a decade later I moved to NY in September of 2001 and started film school. It was surreal to be in NY right after 9-11 and what was happening set the tone for my film school experience. 9-11 got a lot of people to stop and think, what am I doing with my life and why am I doing what I chose to do. It made everyone re-evaluate where they were, and it was especially true for people in film school because film seemed so frivolous at the time. People were going to donate blood and we were making movies, who cares. That was the feeling for a little while after 9-11.

For me it reminded me of why I became a filmmaker when I was again hearing stories of middle easterners being scapegoated and then when the US invaded Iraq again and history was literally repeating itself that was when I said OK I have to sit down and write this story. The world is ready for a Palestinian immigrant story, one that can reach mainstream audiences. I was aware of not wanting it to be political, I wanted it to have humor. I want people to see it. I don't want it to be ghettoized because I didn't make it just for the Arab community.

W&H: What do you want them to think about when they leave the film?

CD: I want them to really fall in love with the characters. It's a glimpse into a world they might not have otherwise seen. I want them to walk away knowing that the culture is beautiful and should be appreciated and that stereotypes are unnecessary. I want them to walk away with a feeling of love and hope that they have just met people they have really liked.

W&H: Talk about the Sundance experience.

CD: It's been a whirlwind.

W&H: What was the biggest high?

CD: My world premiere was on Saturday afternoon at the Eccles Theatre which seats 1400 people and it was entirely packed. It was such a thrill and I was so nervous. I had to introduce the film and was sad that my mother couldn't be there so I called her on my cell phone and had her on the phone while I introduced the film and everyone say hi to her. Everyone shouted hi mom. I got so emotional and she was giggling and sobbing. It was such a sweet moment that I will never forget. Then the movie started and everyone was laughing in the right places and they were so with the film and afterward there was a standing ovation. It was a magical moment.

W&H: The films about guys are generating most of the buzz have you noticed that?

CD: Yes, it's interesting. I wasn't prepared for how tremendously postive the response has been. In some ways it is the perfect reception for this movie and maybe if it wasn't such a difficult market we would have sold the film already. But I am hopeful and the prospects seem good. I have noticed that it is easier to get a film with a male lead financed, and to get those movies seen and sold and I don't know why.

Originally posted on Women & Hollywood