Frisky Q&A: Writer/Director Cherien Dabis Talks “Amreeka,” Tinseltown, And Netflix Picks
When Cherien Dabis was a teen growing up in small town Ohio, the First Gulf War broke out. Her family began getting death threats and her Palestinian father, a doctor, lost patients. These experiences came to inspire the filmmaker to write and direct the award-winning “Amreeka,” a movie that tells the story of Muna, a single mother who leaves her life in the West Bank and moves to Illinois with her teenage son, Fadi. While their move to the United States is filled with obstacles, the movie isn’t a total downer. In fact, it’s filled with amazing family moments that are often sweet and funny, showing a different side of the conflict. Cherien spoke to The Frisky about how similar life experiences drove her to become a filmmaker, what it was like to make a film in Palestine, and which movies we should add to our Netflix queue. The Frisky: What was it like going from being a writer and producer on “The L Word” to writing and directing a film?
Cherien Dabis: I started writing “Amreeka” back in 2003 when I was a film student at Columbia, so even though I was working in television as a writer and co-producer, I was always working toward making my first feature. As a writer and co-producer on a television show, I learned so much. I think that experience made it much easier for me to put on the director’s hat because I’d gotten to be on many different directors’ sets and see how quickly everything moves. And I learned a really essential lesson: How to be really economical and understand what the fat is in the script, and what to trim and what to keep. That is something that I learned in television that was enormously helpful and made directing that much easier when I made the transition. And directing is incredibly different from writing and producing. It’s so hands-on. You’re in charge and you’re leading the way, so it was really important and really great to have any kind of professional experience because so much about directing is having confidence in your own vision and being able to communicate it and hiring really great people and then trusting them to do their jobs. It was really nice to have been in a professional environment and in production before going into my first film.
The Frisky: Were there any scenes that you had written that you eventually had to cut out that you were really sad to see go?
CD: One of the things I learned is that I don’t get that married to my material. There was sometimes a moment where I thought “Aw, I really liked that” but usually if I’m fiercely attached to something it’s because it’s essential to the story. If it’s not essential to the story, I usually recognize that, and even though I might like it, I’ll probably let it go.
The Frisky: Which parts of the movie were drawn from your own life?
CD: Well, I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and my father was a physician. My parents immigrated to the U.S. right before I was born, so I was the first in my family born here and I grew up in this really tiny town of 10,000. We were always sort of the outsiders because in a small town there’s no anonymity, so whether or not you look particularly Arab, they know. They know what languages you speak at home. They know that you go to the Middle East every summer. It’s a small community so everybody talks. During the first Gulf War, we went from sort of not quite fitting in to becoming the enemy. My father lost a lot of his patients because people didn’t want to support an Arab doctor, so they started boycotting him. We got death threats on a daily basis for a time, and it was actually worse in real life than it gets in the movie. The Secret Service showed up at my high school because of a tip that they’d received that my 17-year-old sister threatened to kill the president. All of those events were incredibly formative for me because I was only 14 at the time, and I was sort of shocked at the behavior of people I thought I knew. That was a big inspiration for me to become a filmmaker because I started to see the role of the media in creating these stereotypes and perpetuating them and, in my 14-year-old mind, destroying my social life, destroying my sense of security and safety and idealism. So it was that that propelled me into filmmaking and eventually inspired “Amreeka.”
I have to say, there were the people who stuck by us and the people who really stood up for us, including my high school principal who inspired that character of the principal who sticks by the family. I was really inspired not only by the discrimination we experienced — in “Amreeka” that’s sort of the context for the story — but also the relationships that come out of a time like that and the way in which a family kind of comes together in order to survive that.
Some of the characters are very much inspired by my family members. Muna sort of comes from my aunt, who immigrated to the U.S. with her teenage son in 1997. More than her story, what I found so admirable about her is the quality she possessed that she completely believed in people. She was so hopeful and so optimistic in the face of all these great challenges: She had a difficult time finding a job, and she didn’t know if she made a mistake. She just remained so optimistic and she was so resourceful and people could see that in her. She had such faith in people that she was entirely disarming, and people fell in love with her and that eventually helped her along. I think she was in college when she immigrated, and I remember watching her and thinking, If there were more people like her in the world, it would be such a better place.
The Frisky: What was it like for your family to see their lives played out on screen?
CD: I think that they were really, really amazed that I was able to take a difficult time in our lives and turn it into something that was full of heart and humor and that was enlightening for audiences, helping illuminate something important and people needed to talk about and helping illuminate it from a very human perspective rather than a political perspective. They were really blown away, and I think they were incredibly touched and the film felt really familiar to them. There are some family jokes in there, and my mother’s name is Raghda. People couldn’t pronounce it in the town I grew up in. I don’t blame them. It’s a difficult name and I butcher names in other languages all the time, but it’s one of those insider family funny things that sometimes amazes me that people laugh at. I had a friend in junior high named Matt, and my mom used to always say, “How is Matt? May he rest in peace.” And then she’d go off laughing at herself. So she inspired me to use that. To find a way to put that into the movie meaningfully. They got such a kick out of the fact that I was able to take those personal family moments and experiences, both difficult and beautiful. I think they were just really proud.
The Frisky: Which character are you most like?
CD: I would say I went through different phases and was at different times like each of the daughters. I emerged as the eldest daughter, as someone sort of rebellious and always questioning and always defending one side of myself: either my American side to my Arab parents or my Arab side to my American peers. That was kind of the quandary of being a first-generation kid of immigrants who was kind of the bridge between two cultures. Your parents don’t understand the new culture, so you need to be the bearer of new information, and yet your new community doesn’t quite understand where your parents come from, so again, you find yourself in that same position of having to explain. I think that’s another reason why I became a filmmaker. Being that bridge between two cultures lends itself to storytelling. It was the only way to make sense was to help my two worlds understand one another.
The Frisky: Where did you shoot the film?
CD: The Palestinian part of the film was entirely shot in the West Bank in Ramala and Bethlehem, and the U.S. parts were, for the most part, shot in Winnipeg, Canada. Shooting in North America is somewhat of a challenge because you have unions and paperwork and things like that, but I have to say my favorite part of shooting was shooting in Palestine in the West Bank. People ask me if it was difficult shooting there, and I can’t say it was easy. The logistics of shooting there can be a nightmare. It’s tremendously complicated, and you need to sometimes do twice or three times the work in order to secure everything you need. But once you’re able to get it, what’s so exciting to me about shooting there is the fact that nothing closes. In North America, if you want to shoot in a grocery store, you have to close the grocery store down first. You have to hire extras to be the background players, and then your first day you have to choreograph all of them. Whereas in Palestine, it’s like, “Shoot your movie, but we’re not going to change anything for you.” They have a livelihood. There’s this sense of urgency because places stay open and instead of having to manipulate every corner of the frame, the way in which you would have to here, you can just choreograph your own actors in an actual world that is moving, that is operating, that is alive. And then you get to sort of blur the line between fiction and documentary because you’re both creating life in front of the camera and you’re also capturing it. And that was just really exciting for me. I love that style of shooting, I thought it worked so well, and the beginning part of the film is actually my personal favorite because it feels so organic, in part because of the way we were able to shoot it.
The Frisky: What’s it like being a woman in Hollywood? Do you feel like a minority?
CD: It’s very funny because I’m a little bit like Muna. I choose to see the possibility rather than the difficulty. I choose to see the good rather than the negative. Is there difficulty? Yes. Is it probably more challenging? Yes. But I don’t put too much emphasis on it because I don’t want to give it power. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced anything because I’m not the kind of person who would focus on that unless it was really blatant and overt and then I would probably just say something to the person because I’m also that blunt. I guess I don’t feel like a minority because I don’t want to feel like a minority, and the stories I want to tell are really universal, even though they happen to be about a particular cultural group right now.
The Frisky: Do you have any suggestions for movies we can add to our Netflix queues?
CD: “In the Mood for Love,” “Central Station,” and “Arthur” are some of my favorite movies. My taste really ranges from comedy to like poetic, epic love stories. I really love character-driven stories that either touch on really important humanity in all of us, like the “Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” or like Wong Kar-wai’s unrequited love stories or [those that] have something political to say but are told from a really humanist perspective like Ang Lee or Jim Sheridan. It probably comes as no surprise, but I really love movies that have that balance between drama and comedy. I heard someone once say, “I love comedies that make me cry and dramas that make me laugh” and I just loved that.