For 'Amreeka' Director, Life As Inspiration For Art Writer and director Cherien Dabis talks about her feature film Amreeka, and the immigrant childhood that inspired it.
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For 'Amreeka' Director, Life As Inspiration For Art

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For 'Amreeka' Director, Life As Inspiration For Art

For 'Amreeka' Director, Life As Inspiration For Art

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Arabic word for America, "Amreeka," is the title of Cherien Dabis's new film. "Amreeka" is inspired by some of her own experiences growing up in a small town in Ohio in a Palestinian-Jordanian family. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. just before she was born.

When the movie begins, a single mother, Muna, and her teenage son, Fadi, are living in the West Bank where they know he will have no future in spite of how smart he is. Getting stopped and harassed at a checkpoint is the last straw. They want to move. Unexpectedly, her application for a green card comes through, so they leave the West Bank for a small town in Illinois where they move in with her sister, her sister's husband and their three daughters. Muna and Fadi have to figure out how to navigate in a new country with no money, no job, and little understanding of the culture.

The film premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival and is now opening nationally. This is Dabis's first feature film. She's written several episodes of the Showtime series "The L Word."

Here's a scene from "Amreeka." The mother, Muna, played by Nisreen Faour, and her son, Fadi, played by Melkar Muallem, have just arrived in the U.S. They're in the airport talking to a customs agent.

Mr. WILL WOYTOWICH (Actor): (as US Airport Customs Official) Citizenship?

Ms. NISREEN FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) We don't have.

Mr. WOYTOWICH: (as US Airport Customs Official) You don't have citizenship? As in you don't have a country?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) That's right.

Mr. WOYTOWICH: (as US Airport Customs Official) Where are you from, Israel?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) No, no. It's Palestinian territory.

Mr. WOYTOWICH: (as US Airport Customs Official) Your occupation?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) Yes, it is occupied and for 40 years.

Mr. WOYTOWICH: (as US Airport Customs Official) No. What is your occupation? What do you do for a living, ma'am?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) Oh yes, I was working in banking.

Mr. WOYTOWICH: (as US Airport Customs Official) This your son?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) Yes. Fadi.

Mr. WOYTOWICH: (as US Airport Customs Official) Your husband traveling with you?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) No, we are divorced. My husband, he's not a good man.

GROSS: Cherien Dabis, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you are of Palestinian-Jordanian descent but you grew up in the United States. You've said in the past that you have an aunt who came to the U.S. when you were going up from, was it from the West Bank?

Ms. CHERIEN DABIS (Writer/Director, "Amreeka"): She actually emigrated from Jordan in 1997.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Were there problems that she had adjusting to the U.S. that you borrowed for your movie?

Ms. DABIS: She - yeah absolutely. I mean she had a lot of problems finding work. I think that was the main thing that I sort of borrowed from because I really saw her struggle. And I saw her coming from a place where she had you know, a great job and two masters degrees. And in the U.S. she was working for, you know, in the service industry and factories and sort of going from job to job, really struggling.

GROSS: Now is it true that you went to a refugee camp in the West Bank when you were casting?

Ms. DABIS: Yes. That is true. I went to the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, and I went to a non-profit there that was training, you know, young people in the arts and theater and acting. And I - when I arrived there I realized that most of the kids actually didn't speak English so it wasn't going to be a traditional casting session, and I decided, let me sit down with these kids and sort of just get to know who they are. So I took them each into a room one by one and just sort of talked to them and wanted to hear a little bit about who they were and their life story.

And as I was listening to some of these stories, you know, and some of them were very intense. I mean, one kid was telling me about how his three-year-old brother was asphyxiating in his crib after, you know, Israelis threw tear gas into their home, and his mother grabbed his little brother from the crib and ran outside and ended up getting shot in the leg right outside. So he's telling me this really intense story and all of the sudden there's gunfire outside the window.

And I look at him and he looks at me like he's just so sorry. He's not scared. He's actually apologetic to me that this is happening while I'm there. And it was just a really, it was a really intense moment that made me realize that I, that this is something that happens there every day, and I sort of felt like I didn't have a right to be scared.

GROSS: What was the gunfire about?

Ms. DABIS: It was actually - I found out that it was infighting between Hamas and Fatah, and nothing ended up happening. Everything was fine. The gunfire, it got pretty intense and it lasted for about 20 minutes, but then it dissipated.

GROSS: So, you ended up not using any of the young people that you met in the refugee camp?

Ms. DABIS: That's right.

GROSS: But did it contribute to the storyline at all? Did you rewrite anything based on the people who you met there?

Ms. DABIS: Well, I think what's interesting to me was, you know, just interacting with Palestinian teenagers and teenage boys and really seeing what their lives were like. Listening to their personal stories, you know, asking them what kind of music they listened to, seeing the way that they reacted to the gunfire, it was very eye-opening for me. I mean, I, you know, I've never lived in the West Bank. I've never lived under occupation. I don't know what it's like to be a Palestinian teenage boy, and I think those interactions absolutely formed the character of Fadi and made me see things from him point of view in I think a clearer way.

GROSS: Do you speak Arabic or did you need a translator?

Ms. DABIS: I speak Arabic.

GROSS: How did you learn it?

Ms. DABIS: I learned Arabic and English at the same time and my parents always insisted that we speak Arabic at home. So, and also while I grew up mostly in a small town in Ohio, we used to return to Jordan every summer for three months at a time so that was definitely good for keeping up the language.

GROSS: Your father is a doctor and so is the brother-in-law of the woman…

Ms. DABIS: That's right.

GROSS: …who emigrates to the United States in your movie. And in the movie, the brother-in-law loses a lot of his patients because the U.S. has just invaded Iraq and he's seen just implicitly as being like a Saddam Hussein kind of guy because he's an Arab, you know, period.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DABIS: Mm-hmm. That's right.

GROSS: So a lot of patients are afraid to see him. He can't even pay the mortgage anymore because he's losing patients and money. Was it that bad with your father during the first Gulf War?

Ms. DABIS: Well, I would say that I definitely, you know, dramatized in the film. I mean, I don't think enough patients left that we were, you know, struggling financially to that extent, but a number of patients left, and it did have an effect on his practice. And more than that even, I think it had a real effect on the family. And in many ways, you know, what inspired me to make "Amreeka" was sort of the way in which my family sort of coped with that time period, the way it which it brought us together and made us realize who we were, and in some ways, for me as a 14-year-old, made me proud of who I was.

It had the reverse effect on me that maybe it was intended to. I don't know if I was supposed to feel shame about being an Arab-American but I think the opposite thing happened. And I felt really proud that I had these two very rich sort of cultures to draw from. I was, you know, I could blend in in both places but I was neither one fully, but both in part. And it was at that time that I really started to embrace that and really appreciate, you know, where my parents came from and the culture and I took a real interest in the Middle East. And I think that it was that that really pushed me towards storytelling.

So, and actually in real life, I think in many ways things were worse in real life than they are in the film. I mean my father's patients, many of them did walk out on him. We got death threats on a daily basis for a time. And actually, the Secret Service came to my high school to investigate a rumor that my 17-year-old sister threatened to kill the president.

GROSS: Where did that rumor come from?

Ms. DABIS: You know, I think that, you know, my sister was quite outspoken in her government class. And to this day we sort of suspect that someone called, you know, a tip line and made some kind of, you know, outrageous claim that she had threatened to kill the president, when I think it was really just, you know, him getting back at her for really looking at the war from a larger perspective.

GROSS: Some scenes from "Amreeka" are shot in the West Bank. I assume you shot on location?

Ms. DABIS: Yes we did. We actually shot those scenes in Ramallah and Bethlehem.

GROSS: There are checkpoints scenes too, you know, at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. Did you have to get permission from the Israel government or from the government in the West Bank to shoot there?

Ms. DABIS: Well, we actually created those checkpoints. We created a checkpoint in which we shot both of those scenes, because it would've been impossible for us to shoot anywhere near a real checkpoint. We did have the permission of the Palestinian Authority and we shot entirely within the West Bank. So as long as we were building our checkpoint in the West Bank nowhere near the borders, then we had no, you know, we were told that we wouldn't have a problem, and we didn't actually. We found a location that we thought would work. We built, you know, we built the concrete blocks. We graffitied the walls. We put up the barbed-wire and the plastic bags that we stuck to the barbed-wire and the piles of trash and the guard stands. And, you know, we brought in Palestinians to put on the Israel solider uniforms and play the Israel soldiers. So it was all...

GROSS: The Palestinians are playing Israeli soldiers?

Ms. DABIS: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DABIS: Yeah, they had a heyday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, one of the things that happens at the checkpoint in one of the scenes is that Muna and her son are asked what their house number is.

Ms. DABIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And she says, we don't have house numbers in Bethlehem and the guards look kind of confused. So, what's that about?

Ms. DABIS: Well it's actually true. I mean, you know, in many Arab countries there are no house numbers. It's sort of, you know, there aren't even really street names. I think that that's a new thing that they're starting to implement, at least in Jordan. I'm not certain about the West Bank, but it's just a different system. It's a different way of doing things. And in some ways, it was pointing out that, you know, in Israel it's done one way and there are street names and house numbers, and in the West Bank things are a little more organic and you find someone's house by describing, you know, the pharmacy nearby and then counting down that it's four buildings down on the left and it's got a red, you know, exterior, and it's just much more descriptive. And I wanted to, I just wanted to show sort of that difference while also looking for a way to, you know, looking for one of the ways in which conflict escalates at a checkpoint.

GROSS: My guest is Cherien Dabis. She wrote and directed the new film, "Amreeka." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is film director and screenwriter Cherien Dabis. Her new movie, "Amreeka," is about a Palestinian mother and her teenage son who move from the West Bank to a small town in Illinois where they live with her sister's family.

In this scene, the teenage boy has been out with his cousin who's played by Alia Shawkat. You may know Shawkat from "Arrested Development" where she played the character Maeby. The teenagers are returning home. Their mothers have been worried and are not pleased they stayed out so late.

Unidentified Woman: Where have you been?

Ms. ALIA SHAWKAT (Actress): (as Salma) My God. Jesus. Mom, what are you doing?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) Where have you been Fadi? We are so worried.

Mr. MELKAR MUALLEM (Actor): (as Fadi) We just went to a movie.

Ms. FAOUR: (as Muna) (Foreign Language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: Who went with you?

Mr. MUALLEM: (as Fadi) No one. It was just us two.

Unidentified Woman: Where's Jim? He wasn't there?

Ms. SHAWKAT: (as Salma) Uh-uh.

Unidentified Woman: You are grounded one month, (foreign language spoken).

Ms. SHAWKAT: (as Salma) What, this is ridicules.

Mr. MUALLEM: (as Fadi) Auntie, Julie's a friend of mine.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign Language spoken) Drinking with drugs and God's know what..

Ms. SHAWKAT: (as Salma) Is that all you think that people do here?

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

Ms. SHAWKAT: (as Salma) Well here's a shocker mom. We live in America. Were Americans.

Unidentified Woman: As long as you live in this house, you live in Palestine.

Ms. SHAWKAT: (as Salma) You're delusional.

GROSS: How did your family come to the United States - and I know your mother's Palestinian and your father Jordanian? Do I have that right?

Ms. DABIS: They're actually the opposite.

GROSS: The opposite. Okay.

Ms. DABIS: Mm-hmm. My father's Palestinian. My mother's Jordanian.

GROSS: And did your father live in Gaza or the West Bank or did he live in Jordan too?

Ms. DABIS: No my father was born and raised in the West Bank and actually went to med school in Cairo. And he was in med school in Cairo during the '67 war, so he did not get an ID card, which meant that he couldn't go back to the West Bank. So he started to going to Jordan, which is where he met my mother and then he eventually got a residency at a university in Nebraska, which is when they emigrated and that was the year before I was born.

GROSS: Ah-ha. Well that answers my question of how you ended up in Nebraska.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DABIS: Yes. And, of course, how we ended up in Ohio is the way many immigrants end up in Ohio is they're recruited. Many doctors - many immigrant doctors end up in, you know, rural parts of the country because they're recruited.

GROSS: Because there was a shortage of doctors there?

Ms. DABIS: Exactly. So this small town in Ohio was looking for a pediatrician and that's how my father ended up going there.

GROSS: What was it like for you growing up, being born in America to parents who were from the West Bank and Jordan, did you have values as you were growing up that were different from - that clashed with their values and that you had big fights about?

Ms. DABIS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, in the U.S. -going to school in the U.S. is much different from going to school in the Arab world. And, you know, the idea of even just being involved in extracurricular activities was in some ways very foreign to my parents and something that they did not encourage. And it was something that we really had to - my sisters and I really had to fight to do, to play sports, to be involved in any kind of after school activities. They didn't quite understand that - even things like the prom. I remember having to explain to my mother what the prom was, and it just sounded to her like a really bad idea. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DABIS: …that was a big fight.

GROSS: I think that's how a lot of high school students go, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DABIS: So, I think that if I was - maybe if I was allowed to go, I wouldn't have wanted to. But because I wasn't allowed, it was foremost on my list.

GROSS: Yeah, well, that's interesting. How did you decide that you wanted to be a filmmaker? And before you actually had a movie that did well at Sundance…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …where your parents could be really proud, what was their reaction that you wanted to make movies?

Ms. DABIS: Such a good question. Well, I think, you know, my experience during the first Gulf War was really eye opening and made me very interested in the media in general, because I really realized that the media and Hollywood movies were perpetuating stereotypes of Arab-Americans. And I became very impassioned for wanting to do something to change the way we were being misrepresented and also to change the fact that we are underrepresented. And there were no, you know, real, authentic portrayals of us. So I think that, you know, at the age of 14, I sort of knew that I wanted to tell stories. I didn't know how.

And I definitely gravitated towards artistic expression, I think in part because, you know, I grew up in such completely different worlds, traveling from rural Ohio to Jordan. And I - in some ways, I felt like an outsider in both places, always. So, I always sort of took a step back and observed things and felt the need to write things down and sort of tell my Arab relatives about my American life and my American friends about my Arab life. And so there's always this sense that I was this bridge between these two cultures and I had the ability to tell stories that would be illuminating to, you know, one or the other.

And so, you know, the Gulf War definitely made me specifically interested in the media and in film and television. And over the course of next 10 years, I really explored that. And I definitely, at one point, started to vocalize maybe in my early 20s that I wanted to be a filmmaker. And I'll never forget, actually, when I told my father, he was like, you can't be a filmmaker. You're an Arab. And he meant it in a way - you know, I think that what he meant to say was: Who's going to be interested in what you have to say? I think it was more of a fear than anything, that people wouldn't care what the Arab-American experience was or who the Arab-American voice was.

And, you know, my parents really wanted me to go to med school and be a doctor. So, like every other immigrant, like most other immigrant parents, they wanted that for me. So it was, it was a little bit of a battle. And, you know, ultimately, now they're very proud. But I think that they really were afraid that, you know, choosing this path would lend to a life with no security and, you know, all those things that immigrant parents are afraid of.

GROSS: Well, Cherien Dabis, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. DABIS: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Cherien Dabis wrote and directed the new film, "Amreeka." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Whitney Houston's first new album in seven years. This is FRESH AIR.

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