Before the Persian Gulf War exploded in the early 1990s, Cherien Dabis and her family were popular, well-respected members of their adopted Ohio town. Her father, a physician, and mother were Palestinian immigrants from the West Bank and Jordan who’d moved to the United States shortly before Dabis’ birth. Dabis says she grew up wanting “so badly” to be an all-American girl.
But when the war began, her family went from being treated as friends and neighbors to being turned into pariahs and outcasts. Hostile, anonymous notes were left in their mailbox. “Those Arabs should leave town!” someone screeched to the local newspaper. A florist told Dabis’ mother that she couldn’t shop there anymore because other customers had threatened a boycott.
The worst blow occurred when Secret Service agents came to Dabis’ high school to investigate a false report that her 17-year-old sister had made a death threat.
“It was a huge turning point in my life,” Dabis said recently at a Beverly Hills hotel.
As the war continued, Dabis also was struck by what she regarded as stereotype-saturated TV news depictions of Arabs and the Arab world. “At the age of 14, I sort of made it my mission in life to change that representation,” she said, laughing softly. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it.”
Following college and a couple of career twists, Dabis (whose name is pronounced Sha-REEN Da-EYE-bis) eventually settled on writing and directing movies as the means to her mission.
Her new feature, “Amreeka,” which had its world premiere at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival and opens in theaters today, is her clearest articulation of the challenges and complexities of modern Arab American identity and the passions and cultural pratfalls that animate the process of assimilating to a new society.
The movie relates the story of a Palestinian single mother named Muna (played by Haifa-trained theater and movie actress Nisreen Faour), who immigrates to the rural American Midwest with her young son (Melkar Muallem) in hopes of bettering their lives. She arrives at a time when tensions between the U.S. and the Arab world are simmering, which significantly affects the story.
But if the film’s briefly glimpsed political backdrop is serious, even grave, “Amreeka” plays mostly as a shrewdly observant, tender-hearted domestic comedy of intra-family conflict and reconciliation. The pleasures of eating, the awkwardness of adolescent craving for peer approval and the vagaries of middle-age romance all fall within its generous, humane scope.
“There’s so much comedy in family,” Dabis said. “You know one another so well and you know exactly what buttons to push.”
She could relate
Many aspects of “Amreeka” mirror the director’s own life. Born in Omaha in 1976, she grew up feeling that she was neither fully American nor fully Arab. While striving to fit into American society, she spent summers in Jordan, watched Arabic satellite TV, was constantly served Middle Eastern food by her mother at home, and engaged with her family in constant discussions about the Middle East around the dinner table.
Years later, when she moved to New York and studied film at Columbia University, Dabis was able to blend into the ethnically mixed metropolis more than she had been able to in the Midwest.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Dabis said, she could be “like the fly on the wall, where I got to hear what people we’re saying about Arabs.”
The fallout from the attacks, she believes, further galvanized Arabs and Arab Americans to start investing in mass media, the arts and other communication platforms, “trying to change our image to the rest of the world.” That effect was perhaps especially notable for Arab and Arab American women, a number of whom have emerged prominently in the last several years as artists, memoirists and writers.
“There were a number of women who were probably pursuing this path, but 9/11 sort of illuminated our path, really gave us a sense of purpose,” Dabis said.
Partly out of that impulse, “Amreeka” was born.
When she began writing her screenplay’s first draft in 2003, Dabis wanted to make a movie that would show “who we are as everyday people, without all the politics.” But some who read the script early on told her it was “too light,” “too slice-of-life” and “too specific,” she said.
Eventually, she found her champions in the nonprofit Film Independent, which accepted her into its directors lab program; the Sundance Institute’s Middle Eastern screenwriters lab; and National Geographic Entertainment, which is distributing “Amreeka” as the company’s first feature-length narrative fiction film.
Lisa Truitt, president of National Geographic Cinema Ventures, praised “Amreeka” for employing humor, artful storytelling and a perceptive anthropological eye to depict a world known to relatively few Americans as well as to defuse potentially divisive subjects. “It doesn’t preach. It’s not hard-core political,” Truitt said, speaking from Washington, D.C.
The crew was wary
Shooting “Amreeka” posed significant challenges, as did casting (Dabis held casting sessions in Europe and the Middle East, including Palestinian refugee camps). The director said she always wanted to film the movie’s opening scenes in the West Bank, despite the logistical and paperwork challenges of bringing a crew there. Before the trip, Dabis said, some of her crew members were apprehensive about possibly encountering danger.
But in the end, she said, her production team was warmly received by West Bank Palestinians, and “every stereotype and misconception was shattered.”
Alesia Weston, associate director of Sundance’s feature film program, said, “What’s so lovely about the film is it’s such an honest reflection of who” Dabis is.
Movies such as “Amreeka” and “The Kite Runner,” Weston said, are proving that audiences are growing more comfortable with films that speak in ethnically and culturally mixed voices. “We no longer think, ‘Well, the English-speaking part of me thinks this, and the other part of me thinks that,’ ” she said.
Dabis said her Arab American upbringing, “being taken out of one world and put in another,” definitely helped shape her “anthropological outlook” on life.
She has used that talent in past professional work, including writing several episodes of Showtime’s lesbian-centric drama “The L Word” and penning and directing the 12-minute short film “Make a Wish,” about a Palestinian girl who wants to save money to buy a birthday cake.
“I can relate to a number of marginalized communities,” said Dabis, who has dated both women and men. “I can go back and forth between the two worlds.”
Which is what she’ll presumably be doing with her next feature film, about an Arab American woman who goes to Jordan to plan her wedding.
“I’m still concerned with that fish out of water,” she said.