‘Amreeka’ plumbs Arab-American experience
Ryan Summerlin January 16, 2009
"I was just your average first generation," explains Cherien Dabis, who wrote, directed and produced the Sundance competition drama "Amreeka" being shown for free to locals Jan. 22 at the Park City Library. "My mom would make Arab food and I would beg her to get Wendy’s."
Dabis, whose dad is Palestinian, grew up in Ohio and spent summers in her mom’s native Jordan. She came of age during the first Gulf War. One of five sisters, Dabis based "Amreeka," which means America in Arabic, on her experience growing up in two worlds that often misunderstood, and misrepresented, each other. It was tough as a girl, but as a writer, the arduous task of harboring multiple identities has paid dividends for Dabis. "The way my experience of being Arab and American, but neither entirely, is really quite a lovely thing as a writer," she said. "I have two rich experiences to draw from."
In high school, Dabis’s sisters sometimes found themselves in trouble without explanation. The FBI investigated one teenage sister for a plot to assassinate the first President Bush. Another sister attracted the ire of authorities at her university in Indiana for allegedly fomenting anti-American sentiment on campus.
But it was Dabis’s aunt, whom the filmmaker describes as a "boundless optimist," who provided the archetype for the film’s Munah Farah, the Palestinian single mom at the heart of "Amreeka." Weary of the grind of living in the West Bank, Farah reluctantly immigrates to heartland Illinois with her teenage son, Fadi, to start a new life.
What distinguishes the film from others is its sense of humor. Laughter, not tragedy is the watershed of Munah’s life. "I wanted to tell a story that’s lighthearted," Dabis said. "There’s a side to the experience that’s funny, that’s all about family. The film is really about the larger struggle for belonging that applies to everyone. It’s about a woman who is trying to start a new life and a kid who desperately wants to fit in and distance himself from his family."
The film, shot during a whirlwind 23 days in the West Bank, Ramallah, Bethlehem and North America, has one foot in the Middle East and one foot in the Midwest. The cast, gleaned from an exhaustive search, is equally cosmopolitan. Dabis held auditions in Dearborn, Mich., Chicago and Jerusalem to come up with the right cast. "Casting is one of the challenges of making films that have strong female characters in lead roles," Dabis said. "There are so few women in the industry. And it was a huge challenge to find them. They ended up coming from everywhere."
Dabis didn’t get to see the whole cast together until a few days before filming started in the winter of 2007.
After graduating from the University of Cincinnati with degrees in communications and creative writing, Dabis moved to New York City in September 2001 to from Columbia University’s film program. After 9/11, she experienced eerie similarities, a kind of cultural déjà vu, to the anti-Arab prejudice she faced growing up. Dabis was 14 at the start of the first Gulf War in 1991. A decade later, America was again at war in the Muslim world under the Bush administration. Dabis said the experience served as a gut check for her and her colleagues at school. "It really set the tone for film school," she said. "I really needed to understand why I had to be a filmmaker."
Dabis premiered her first Sundance film, a short called "Little Black Boot," in 2003. She returned to the festival in 2007 with another short, "Make a Wish." She has also written for television shows such as Showtime’s "The L Word" and "The West Wing."
For "Amreeka," her debut writing and directing a feature film, Dabis participated in the Sundance Institute’s first Middle East Screenwriter’s Lab in Jordan in 2005, when she shaped the script and story for "Amreeka." "I’ve always tried to be the bridge between cultures," Dabis said. "I hope audiences will laugh and walk away with a sense of familiarity with characters they otherwise would have never met."
Sundance offers free ticket distribution to Summit County residents Wednesday, Jan. 21, for a showing of "Amreeka," about a Palestinian family’s journey amidst the cultural fallout of America’s war in Iraq. "Sister Wife," directed and produced by Park City locals Jill Orschel and Alexandra Fuller, will precede the films, which screen Thursday, Jan. 22, at the Park City Library at 8:30 p.m.