Out director Cherien Dabis brings Arab Americans to the screen


Being Arabic in America has been tough for a while now, but post-September 11 America brought out a lot of racism disguised as patriotism and this theme is nothing new. America goes to war with a country (or a region), and (some) of its citizens and leaders seem to forget there are Americans from that country, too.

Someone who knows this all too well is director Cherien Dabis.

The openly gay Dabis, who was raised in Ohio by a Jordanian mother and Palestinian father, experienced the sudden shift in how she and her family were treated first hand, during the Gulf War. Now, Dabis, who also penned a few L Word episodes, has released a film tackling the issue head-on, and it has already received a boatload of critical acclaim.

Her film, Amreeka, tells the story of a Palestinian single mother who flees the West Bank for a small Illinois town with her teenage son, where she faces discrimination from locals (and having to work at White Castle despite her two degrees).

In an interview with New York Magazine, Dabis explains why making the film was so important to her:

It’s loosely based on things that happened to us during the first Gulf War. We lived in a small Ohio town, and my father, a physician like Muna’s brother-in-law, lost a lot of patients because people didn’t want to see an Arab doctor. We got daily death threats, and the Secret Service came to my school because there was a rumor that my 17-year-old sister had threatened to kill the president. I was 14 and became obsessed with the media’s portrayal of Arabs. No one was depicting what we were going through in that climate. It propelled me to become a filmmaker.

Dabis, whose most recently publicized partner was writer/director Rose Troche (Go Fish, The L Word, South of Nowhere), has focused on Sapphic tales almost as much as the marginalization of Arabs in her films, which also include lesbian-themed films such as The D Word and Little Black Boot.

While Dabis won awards for several other films (Memoirs of an Evil Stepmother, Itmanna) Amreeka seems to be the project closest to her heart — though it was not an easy sell.

“I started writing the screenplay in 2003, when everyone wanted movies with American heroes,” Dabis told New York Magazine. “I’m a first-time [feature] filmmaker, with a no-name cast, shopping around a family dramedy that I was told was too light, too culturally specific. It was through programs like Sundance Labs and the Arab-American community that the movie got made.”

One face you may recognize in the film is Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) who also snagged roles in Whip It and Cherry Bomb.

Amreeka opens in New York and L.A. on Sept. 4, and will be making its rounds from there. I will surely be checking it out. Will you?

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