Director Cherien Dabisexplains the cultural duality of her debut feature, Amreeka.
18 Nov 2009 - 2:19 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

The word “Amreeka” translates from Arabic to America. In Cherien Dabis' highly personal film of the same name, Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour) is an Arab living in the West Bank where she suffers through daily public and private humiliations. The film's narrative follows her as she gets her United States Permanent Resident Card and makes the choice to immigrate to the U.S in the hope that she will secure a better future for her son Fadi (Melkar Muallem).

In rural Illinios with Muna's sister and her family, the pair finds themselves faced with a dauntingly similar despair. Says Dabis, “Muna quickly realises that there's a lot of in the U.S that she thought she'd just escaped from. A lot of those same conflicts haunt her and there's a parallel drawn between the hopelessness of her new situation and in the West Bank even though she's a character who maintains a sense of optimism. She's very trusting and has a lot of faith in people and because of that is very disarming to the people she runs across.”

For Dabis, the daughter of Middle Eastern immigrants to America who grew up in a town of ten thousand people in rural Ohio and spent summers in Jordan with her family, filming in both the Arab world and the West allowed her to explore her own dual perspective. “I always say that I didn't feel Arab enough to be Arab nor did I feel American enough to be American yet I fit in relatively well in both places. If you look at me, I don't particularly look Arab. I don't particularly look American yet I can get by as either – I'm both in part.

"Shooting in the West Bank is really great for me and my style. It's not like in the Western world where if you want to shoot in a grocery store, for example, you have to shut it down and bring in your extras and choreograph the background, middle ground and foreground. In the West Bank you don't have to manipulate all four corners of the frame. People are willing to stay open for you. There is a sense of being able to capture real life at the same time that you're creating life in front of the camera. It's a really organic, natural way of shooting that I really prefer.”

With Amreeka, Dabis realises this multiplicity with a deftly sensitive script and wonderfully understated performances, particularly from the older generation of actors. Dabis cites Mike Leigh, Robert Altman and John Cassavetes as her filmmaking references saying that she used their methods “to really focus on the actors, their movement, the performance and blocking in particular” before she brought the camera in. She wanted to “allow the actors the space to improv so that we could really capture the reality of every situation and elevate the material.”

There's no American studio money in Amreeka. Dabis, who first gained attention as an award winning short film director as well as a television writer and co-producer on Showtime's The L Word secured numerous philanthropic grants and programs such as a 2005 Sundance Middle East Screenwriter's Lab, IFP/LA Director's Lab, Los Angeles Film Festival's Fast Track program and Tribeca All Access. The funding for production was sourced from Arab-American private equity, and in what is a first for an international film, financed by both a Middle Eastern broadcaster and theatrical distributor.

For Dabis, who has worked on the project since 2003, this enabled her to create what she “ultimately wanted. It needed to exist as an authentic, intimate movie. That was what was missing from the landscape and that was what I wanted my contribution to be. I wanted to cast it authentically. I didn't want to cast a big name star as Muna. I didn't want to cast someone who was not Arab, someone who could not relate to that part. There were a number of things that were in the script that if I had been willing to change then perhaps I could have got some American funding. Still I'm a first time filmmaker. It's an execution driven film. It would have been difficult.”

Dabis dedicated between six to eight months to an intensive international casting process in the U.S, Canada, Paris and the Middle East where she found the majority of her main cast. Dabis found “the character of Muna and her brother-in-law, Nabeel (Yussef Abu Warda) in Haifa. Hiam Abbass (The Syrian Bride, Paradise Now) who plays Muna's sister, Raghda is the only actress I had thought about when I was writing the script. Muna's son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) lived in Ramallah. Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development, Whip It!) who plays the eldest daughter of Nabeel and Raghda I found in New York. I found out that she was half Iraqi and she had the rebellious spark that I wanted for the character of Salma.”

As Dabis says, even the cast echo her personal exploration of contemporary cultural identity. “I have three main members of my cast who are Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. There's a whole other identity crisis that they are dealing it.”