Amreeka: Interview with Writer-Director Cherien Dabis

“Amreeka” is a film that writer-director Cherien Dabis very much needed to make.  It’s a personal story that draws on her own memories of growing up with her Palestinian/Jordanian family in rural Ohio. 


“My parents immigrated to the U.S. right before I was born.  I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in rural Ohio and Jordan.  When people ask me where I’m from, it’s always a confusing question,” Dabis explains.  “For most of my life I felt like I wasn’t American enough for the Americans, nor was I Arab enough for the Arabs.  And as a Palestinian, I inherited my father’s quandary in not having a nation or a national identity, which only exacerbated my sense of not belonging anywhere.  My own desire for a place to call home, a place where I belonged, was always a very big part of my identity.”


In Ohio, during the first Gulf War, Dabis’s family was ostracized.  Dabis, who was 14 at the time, says, “We got death threats and the Secret Service even came to my high school to investigate a rumor that my 17-year-old sister threatened to kill the President.” 


As Dabis’s family returned to Jordan regularly, she was able to see what was happening in the world from different perspectives.  “In my travels to and from the Middle East, watching and reading news from different perspectives, from Arabic satellite to English news, I started to see how the media often made way for more conflict and misunderstanding, perpetuating stereotypes that affected me and my family in this small Ohio town.”  


Dabis looked to art as a way to understand and define herself.  “I tried a lot of different means of creative expression,” she says, “but ultimately film emerged.  It uses the universal language of emotion and gives you the power to reach out to people in a way that interested me most.  When you thinly veil something as fiction, I think people are more willing to sit back, let their guards down and let themselves be affected by a story.”


Entering film school in New York City in September 2001 thrust Dabis once again into the same issues she had confronted in her teenage years.  “When 9/11 happened, the U.S. was invading Iraq again, history was repeating itself,” she says.  “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.” 


In choosing a title, Dabis used the Arabic word for “America.”  Amreeka was my way of finding a title for a movie that’s about the melding of two cultures,” she says, “depicting my experiences and the experience of so many other first-generation immigrants.”


The lead character of Muna in Amreeka is loosely based on Dabis’s aunt.  “By the time she immigrated to the U.S., I was old enough to see her struggle,” says Dabis.  Like Dabis’s aunt, Muna not only has to deal with what every new immigrant deals with, fitting into a new culture and environment, she also has to contend with an unfriendly political climate that creates preconceived and unfair notions of who she is and where she came from.  “But she’s too full of hope to see the odds,” says Dabis.  “That’s my aunt, the eternal optimist.  It was that quality in her that inspired the character of Muna.”


Dabis’s screenplay eventually found its way into the hands of Toronto-based producer Christina Piovesan.  While her mother is Palestinian-Lebanese, Piovesan had never experienced Middle Eastern culture firsthand, and was looking for a movie set in the Arab world to help her understand her roots.  “I started to look for filmmakers who were Middle Eastern, Arab or Arab Americans, and I found Cherien in a Filmmaker Magazine article,” says Piovesan.  “I emailed her, asked to read her script and loved it, and from there we started talking.”   It took Piovesan three years to pull the financing together, from Middle Eastern sources (Showtime Arabia, Rotana Studios), Arab-American patrons and Canadian tax incentives.


Dabis traveled for months to find the right cast for Amreeka.  Casting sessions took place in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dearborn, Toronto, Winnipeg, Paris, Amman, Beirut, Haifa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah.  “I knew this was a movie that would ultimately either succeed or fail based on the acting,” she says.  “So I wasn’t going to stop until I found the perfect cast.” 


Dabis found her lead character of Muna Farah in Palestinian actress Nisreen Faour.  Born in the northern Israeli village of Ma’a lot-Tarshisha, Faour moved to the U.S. at age 16 to study arts and performance.  She has since acted in numerous plays around the world, as well as the film In the Eighth Month.  “Nisreen had a sweetness about her,” says Dabis, “a kindness and a childlike sense of wonder.  There was something about her that was so youthful, and yet, I could still see in her eyes the depth of sadness that her life experience had given her.”  Faour quickly found an emotional connection with Muna: “She was raised to be kind to everyone. She’s a pure human being who wants the best for her son.  She’s a lonely person, but she wants to really live.”


Fifteen-year-old Melkar Muallem makes his film debut as Muna’s rebellious son, Fadi.  “Melkar understands so much about the world, partly because he lives in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, in the West Bank,” says Dabis.  “There was something about him that was angry, yet bottled up, and there was something about him that was political, yet refusing to be.  He’s a kid, yet he has a maturity about him, and he has the ability to be the man as well, which is what I was looking for in the relationship between Muna and her son Fadi.”  Muallem hopes that Amreeka can help give people a broader idea of who Palestinians are: “We are not terrorists, and we do not train from an early age to make bombs.  This is totally wrong—we’re just human beings like anyone else, and learn the same stuff in school.  I think there are good people and bad people everywhere.”


Fadi’s aunt, Raghda Halaby, is portrayed by Hiam Abbass, a celebrated Palestinian actress whose extensive credits include the The Visitor (as the mother), the Academy Award-nominated Paradise Now, and roles opposite Natalie Portman, Juliette Binoche and Gerard Depardieu.  Yussef Abu Warda, a theatre actor from Haifa, plays his first English-speaking role as Nabeel, Raghda’s husband.  Raghda and Nabeel’s daughter, Salma, is played by American-born Alia Shawkat, who has worked steadily as an actress since she was cast at age 11 in the ABC Family series “State of Grace” and is well known for her role as Maeby in Fox’s hit series “Arrested Development.”  

While Dabis was able to rehearse with her two lead actors before production, she didn’t have much time to prepare with the others.  “On set, we continued the rehearsal process as much as possible,” says Dabis.  “And through some improvisation techniques, we worked together to go beyond what was on the page to bring out even more reality and truth in each moment.  Because of that collaboration, there were a lot of scenes that turned out to be so much better than I ever imagined they would be.  I felt such familiarity with all the actors and all of the characters that sometimes I’d look at the actors on set and think: this is my family.”


Scenes of rural Illinois were filmed in Winnipeg, Canada, but creating an authentic picture of Ramallah required location shooting.  “A lot of Palestinians leave Palestine because the situation there makes life so unbearable,” says Dabis.  “I wanted to make sure I captured the daily existence of Palestinians in the West Bank.


Dabis had her heart set on White Castle as the fast food restaurant where Muna takes a job. “Everybody tried to talk her out of it, because with our budget, it didn’t seem possible to build a White Castle,” says Production Designer Aidan Leroux.  Not only did White Castle become an enthusiastic supporter of the film, they contributed a truckload of real White Castle supplies.  “It worked out quite well,” says Leroux.  “People were driving up trying to order hamburgers the whole time we were there!”


As it would be a big challenge to furnish the set of the Halaby home in a realistic fashion without bringing in props from far away, the production sought out Arab families in Winnipeg.  As luck would have it, they found a Palestinian family from Ramallah with three daughters who were close in age to the daughters in the script.  “They had decorated their house and brought in curtains and everything from Ramallah, which would have been expensive for us to do,” says Leroux.  “So it was ideal.  They were completely accommodating, and it really helped us get the nuances right.”


“It was important for me in this movie to create a sense of intimacy and authenticity,” says Dabis.  “I want people to walk out of the theater feeling like they know us, like they’d just celebrated the culture with us.  I want them to walk out feeling a certain amount of familiarity, like ‘We too are immigrants, we too have the same challenges, the same funny and strange experiences, and we’ve gone through so many of the same things.’  And ultimately I’d like for people to walk away with an idea that there are all kinds of Middle Eastern people, that while everybody is different, we are all the same in many ways.” 


In Amreeka, Muna and Fadi flee a life of hardship in Ramallah for the dream of a new life in America, only to encounter obstacles that are more challenging.  “They’re trading one set of problems for another,” says Dabis.  “America is better, or different, in some ways, but there’s still not that sense of home or of belonging that we all seek.  But I didn’t want to end the film on such a depressing note.  Rather, I wanted to show that ultimately home is wherever we choose to make it: home is family; home is the familiar voice of our mothers on the other end of the telephone.  I wanted the film to end with the sense that Muna would do whatever she had to do to create a sense of home for both herself and her son.  Because for a lot of us, home has to be whatever and wherever we want it to be.”