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What is it like for a mother and her teenage son to settle in America? And what if they are Palestinian and their arrival coincides with the onset of the 1991 Gulf war in which a U.S.-led coalition fought Iraq? A new film, Amreeka, recently opened in U.S. theaters, and it answers these and other questions about life in America for those from a very different part of the world. Saqib ul-Islam of VOA's Urdu Service spoke with the writer and director of the film, Cherien Dabis, to learn more about Amreeka and the woman who made it.
The subject matter is serious, but Amreeka is surprisingly warm and in places even lighthearted.
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Writer and director Cherien Dabis says the film is based on her experiences during the early days of the Gulf War in 1991, when she was 14. Her Palestinian/Jordanian parents had immigrated to the American Midwest several years earlier. Before the war, the family - Dabis, her mother, father, and an older sister -- lived a rather typical American life. Her father, a doctor, had a successful practice, but everything changed when the war came. Dabis explains:
"Basically, a lot of what happens in the movie is what happened to us in 1991. My father, who is a physician, lost a lot of his patients during the war because people didn't want to see an Arab doctor," she said.
"And we got death threats, much like what happened in the film. And, actually what happened in real life was sort of even worse. The Secret Service showed up at my high school to investigate a rumor than my 17-year-old sister threatened to kill the president," she added.
Dabis says that her experiences as an Arab-American during the first Gulf War made her want to do something to help change the image of Arabs in the United States. She decided that film would be the best way to reach across different cultures and touch a lot of people. In September of 2001, she went to New York City to begin film school.
"I actually found myself in New York, just days before 9/11. I had just moved there for film school at Columbia University. And, you know, it just reminded me of what my family went through," she said. "I was seeing it in New York. And I was reading a lot of stories of Americans of Middle Eastern descent, or just Americans who looked like they were of Middle Eastern descent, being targeted and scapegoated. And I thought it's really time that we have our own immigrant story. A tale about people who come to this country expecting the American dream and are met with something different, partially because of the political climate," she said.
But Amreeka does not dwell on politics or religion. Its focus is on the highs and lows of a Palestinian mother and son as they try to build new lives in a new country at a most difficult time. Dabis says that, rather than heavy drama, she wanted to highlight the humor and absurdity in a story that all people, wherever they come from, could relate to.
"We, the Arab-American community in particular, really realized, I think, that there was really a sense of urgency about us needing to tell our stories, because … we were so largely misrepresented or underrepresented, that it just felt like now is the time," said Dabis.
Amreeka made its world premiere this year at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 and was also screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, to overwhelmingly positive reviews. And as for its writer-director, Variety Magazine - perhaps the most important publication of the U.S. entertainment industry - has named her one of the 10 directors to watch in 2009. In years to come, it looks like Cherien Dabis will have many opportunities to tell many stories.