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Cherien Dabis' film fuelled by family and identity

You'll be forgiven for thinking you've seen writer-director Cherien Dabis's debut feature Amreeka before. But, trust me, you haven't.

On the surface, this bittersweet, audience-pleasing comedy about a Palestinian family's adjustment to life in small town America looks like a typical "immigrant experience" product. All the elements are there: A young boy who must adjust to American pop culture and morals, a worried mother who finds herself woefully underemployed, the already settled relatives whose apparent comfort and satisfaction with life in the United States is only that, apparent. And, yes, the characters are exposed to typical racism, typical xenophobia and typical family battles.

What makes Amreeka so much more fun than the above précis is the fact that Dabis refuses to let her characters become clichés. The film does not present the new arrivals as noble innocents, or entirely likeable, nor does it make the locals look like yokels. The family of new and not-so-new arrivals makes poor choices and good choices, like any family. Furthermore, the film is set in 2003, on the heels of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq - the racial tension portrayed is palpable and, more important, somewhat understandable (not forgivable, understandable), and flows in all directions.

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Dabis's characters mix befuddlement with keen wit and a believable determination (her tenure as a writer for The L Word is evident in the sharp dialogue). The characters are also so natural that anyone who has ever felt out of place, for any reason, will find common cause with this displaced family.

The U.S. Midwest has a large and long-standing Arab-American community, but their experiences have not been well documented. Why?

I think it's extremely difficult to find the financing to make this kind of movie, and that's probably one of the things that prohibited filmmakers from doing it before. And, also, within our own community, people aren't always encouraged to pursue the arts. So that's probably another reason why other young people haven't come forward to try to make movies, or tell stories about Arab-Americans.

Is there some magical community where people are encouraged to take up the arts? How do I join?

Ha! Yeah, I know. But I think that some communities are more discouraging than others. … Within the Arab-American community, it's particularly bad.

Where did you find your fantastic lead, Nisreen Faour? Did you know her work in Israeli cinema?

No, I didn't know her, I wasn't familiar with her work. I found her in a casting session in Haifa. She's a well-known theatre actress there, and she had only done four films, when I met her, four Palestinian films by the same director, and Amreeka was her first international film, and her first English-speaking part. But the casting process was quite extensive. I travelled for six to eight months, all over the Middle East, the U.S., Canada, and I even did a casting session in Paris. And I watched a ton of movies.

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What were you looking for?

It was incredibly important to me to have Arab actors. In fact, my fist concern making this movie was authenticity. Because I'm an Arab-American myself, I felt that one of the problems is that people don't ever really get to see us authentically depicted, in anything. It was also just really important to me personally to depict the story in a truthful way.

This film reminds us how deeply traumatized the U.S. was by Sept. 11, 2001. Not to excuse racist behaviour, but your film gives us a context for it.

Hmm. That's good to hear. The film in some ways was inspired by my family's experience in the first Gulf War, in 1991. I really wanted to try to understand why people would react in a certain way, rather than judge them. I wanted to, as much as possible, create real people, who are motivated because of their own reasons, and are not just bad or evil.

And yet, this is not an angry film.

That was kind of easy, because at the centre of the movie is this character, Muna [Faour]who is full of light, and has incredible faith in people, and believes in people, to a fault almost. And I definitely come from a place of wanting to have hope and wanting to understand. I definitely have a bit of Muna in me. I'm very optimistic. I'd like to channel any kind of anger I have into something productive. More than anything, the movie for me was about family, family love and pride - all of the things that keep you together during the difficult times.

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You've mentioned your family twice now. What happened to them during the first Gulf War?

My dad's a physician and he lost a lot of patients because people didn't want to see an Arab doctor. We got death threats on a daily basis. The Secret Service actually showed up at my high school because there was a rumour that my sister had threatened to kill the president. My mother wasn't allowed to shop in certain places, because customers were threatening to boycott the stores. It was a really hostile time. I was 14 years old, so by the time I was making Amreeka, I had had many years to process that experience. Making the movie was quite therapeutic, and I didn't want to make an angry movie, I wanted to make a hopeful movie.

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