A story she needed to tell
Cherien Dabis’s feature “Amreeka’’ is one of those odds-defying films that was many years in the making, but an early smash at the places that count - the Sundance Film Festival, Cannes, the New Directors/New Films series in New York. It’s based on her personal story about growing up in a Palestinian/Jordanian family in the rural Midwest. The film is set in a small town in the Illinois countryside at the onset of the Iraq War - not an auspicious time or place for a person of Arab descent. We spoke to Dabis, 32, by phone.
Q. Why did you want to make this film?
A. It was really important to me. It was such a personal film, speaking directly to my own experience. It has a lot to do with growing up Palestinian in the diaspora and feeling very misunderstood and misrepresented during the times we were actually represented [by the media]. It’s loosely based on true events. I grew up in a small town of Ohio during the First Gulf War - Celina, Ohio, with 10,000 people.
Q. Sounds like the deck was stacked against you.
A. Totally. A lot of what happened in the movie happened to us. My father was a doctor and lots of his patients left. We got death threats almost every day in our mailbox, things like “We’ll get Saddam and we’ll get you, too.’’ The level of absurdity reached its pinnacle when the Secret Service showed up at my high school because of a tip they got that my 17-year-old sister had threatened to kill the president. It was definitely a really scary time and my parents were always looking at brochures of Cleveland.
Q. Did you feel more Arab or American growing up?
A. I would definitely say that I suffered from an identity crisis. I was very preoccupied with the question of “Who am I?’’ during my teenage years - I felt I wasn’t Arab enough for Arabs or American enough for Americans. The film did turn out to be quite a therapeutic experience.
Wesley Morris gives “Amreeka’’ a three-star endorsement. Page 7
Q. You’ve been described as a first-time filmmaker with a no-name cast. Was it difficult to get backing?
A. Incredibly difficult. In the US it was seen as a very execution-driven film, not very high-concept. People thought the script was too political, or not political enough. Or too light. The consensus was that the film was not understood within traditional funding circles. I had to go to my own community, to the Arab world, and say, “Look, this is a movie about our own community. Politics take a back seat; it’s about human relationships.’’