Life on the outside: Amreeka

The director Cherien Dabis on growing up as an Arab in America during the first Gulf war and how the experience influenced her debut feature film.

Cherien Dabis says she became a filmmaker "to change the world - as naive and idealistic and cliched as it sounds."
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Life has been going non-stop for Cherien Dabis since her film Amreeka debuted at Sundance last year. A year on the festival circuit, including Cannes, followed. The cautionary tale about getting what you wish for - and it not turning out to be what you expected - starts in Palestine, where the character Muna struggles to raise her family on her own after the failure of her marriage. When she wins the American Green Card lottery, she quits her job in a bank and heads to Illinois to live with her brother and his three daughters. In America, life is much harder than she ever expected.

In one of the most striking scenes Muna and her son are interrogated by Homeland Security for several hours at the airport, in an echo of the family's earlier treatment at checkpoints in the West Bank. Dabis, who also wrote the screenplay, says: "The film is semi-autobiographical, loosely based on my family and their experience as Arabs in a small town in the First World." Dabis's father is Palestinian and her mother is Jordanian. They moved to the United States in the early 1970s. When the director was born in Nebraska in 1976, she was the first in the family to be born in America. Raised in a small town in Ohio, she flitted between the Midwest and the Middle East during her adolescence.

Going between Jordan and America, she says, was "very strange". "They are such different worlds and I think I suffered from an extreme identity crisis growing up. I always felt like an outsider. In the Arab world I was known as the American and in America I was the Arab, and I didn't feel like either of those. I was somewhere in the middle. It's the quintessential first-generation dilemma." Dabis says she felt more American than Arab, but she remembers that her view on life changed the day George Bush Sr declared war on Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. "My father was a doctor like the character in the film," she says. "A paediatrician. He saved some lives in the town and people were proud of him until the first Gulf war hit and suddenly he became the enemy overnight. People walked in the office, asked for their medical records and left. They didn't want to be treated by an Arab anymore."

All of a sudden the American ideal she believed in was shattered. "We got death threats," she recalls. "It was crazy. The secret service came to my high school to investigate the rumour that my 17-year-old sister threatened to kill the president. I was 14 years old. I was really shocked. I couldn't understand why people were believing this. People thought we were Muslims. We went to church with them and they still thought that. It was absurd. They'd ask us if there were cars in Jordan and we'd be like: 'No, we take a Boeing 747 and land in the middle of the desert on sand and then take camels to our mud huts. What do you think?'"

Dabis was forced to reassess her whole way of thinking and how she saw herself in the world. "When I was younger, I wanted to feel more American but the first Gulf war shifted that for me. I realised I'm not just American. In many ways I'm not even American, I'm something other than that. It's a mix. In some ways I really am. I live in New York now." The absurdity that she saw in her life has filtered into the mix of anger and comedy that imbues her debut feature film.

Dabis studied film at Columbia University, where she made her short film, Make a Wish, about a Palestinian girl who wants to buy a birthday cake but doesn't have enough money. She hits the streets of Ramallah and tries to raise the cash. Ambitiously, Dabis decided to shoot the film in Palestine. It was a difficult struggle, she recalls. "I didn't really know what I was doing. It was the first time I'd been in Palestine in 20 years. My father took us when I was eight years old and we had such a hard time at the border that he vowed never to take us back. So 20 years later it was like a pilgrimage for me to make my film. I've been going back quite a bit since then. The shooting of my short film was really the groundwork for the six days when we went there to shoot scenes for Amreeka, which went smoothly because the people that my director of photography and I had worked with for Make a Wish had continued to work in film. There was a burgeoning film community and we knew the pitfalls that we faced."

But the scenes that were shot in America are closest to the director, who was nominated by Variety as one of the 10 directors to watch in 2009. Writing from her experience, she wanted to show how a war in a distant land can make prejudices surface. Muna's son, despite a lesson in how to survive high school from his cousin, cannot escape chastisement from his new peers. Writing the script was personal, Dabis says. "I see myself in all the characters in the film. The eldest daughter is the one whose experiences is closest to mine. The mother, I can relate to her homesickness. I grew up with a mother who was homesick for 15 years, who cried every day, and it's hard not to inherit that sadness as a kid."

Despite her experience in the 1990s, Dabis chose the second Gulf war rather than the first as the setting for Amreeka because the atmosphere at the outbreak of the war and during its initial stages is fresh in people's minds. It also meant that she could choose one of the strongest visual images of both the wars. "I chose the period of the beginning of the invasion, and the statue of Saddam being toppled was a time marker. It happened in April," Dabis says. "The US invaded in March 2003, and the statue fell the next month. I wanted to show something that happened in the US during wartime, the insane patriotism that occurs. It's why people turn on the neighbour that they lived next to for 10 years, and they're suddenly suspicious. That's something my family experienced in 1991. I think it's something very specific to patriotism. It's prevalent when it's not wartime but war brings it out in a really intense way."

Dabis was so disillusioned with America that, until recently, she was thinking about leaving. "In some ways, my relationship with America has changed. I was ready to be an expat after eight years of [George W] Bush. I thought: 'If another Republican is voted in, I'm leaving the country.' America really surprised me by electing Obama and something interesting is happening here. I want to stick around and be part of a movement of change."

The need and desire to improve society is prevalent in all of her work. After graduating from film school, she worked for three seasons on Showtime's much-talked-about television series The L Word as a writer, producer and director. She was not only straddling the two worlds of the Middle East and America but also the battle of gender stereotypes and roles within America itself. The fight for women's rights is at the heart of her work. She wants to tell women's stories and show audiences a more matriarchal society. "I think that I am definitely interested in portraying strong women. I grew up in a matriarchal household and my parents raised five really strong women, but we don't get to see it very often on screen. Women have a different experience in the world than men do, so clearly we're going to have a different point of view and maybe show another side to the culture."

Dabis admits that this desire for change was the primary reason that she chose directing as a career. "I wanted to change the world as a filmmaker - as naive and idealistic and cliched as it sounds to say that. I saw an opportunity to change people's perceptions about certain things. I still think that's possible. Film is a powerful medium that can give people experiences they might not have." Such has been the success of her debut film that the director is readying herself for her sophomore project. This time she plans to shoot in the Middle East. "My next project is not completely different," she says. "In some ways it's the reverse of Amreeka: a 30-year-old Palestinian-American who goes to Jordan for the summer and connects with their roots."

Again, it's a script she will write herself. "I think I'd like to continue generating my own material. To write something is to be so intimately familiar with it that you want to hold on to it and see it through to the end. I would be open to directing other people's scripts but that's harder." The danger, of course, is of being a director of ideas rather than plot, which is what holds audience interest. But it's something she has been wary of. "I'm not certain I'm thinking of a message, which might sound weird, given why I became a filmmaker. I was aware of not making an issue-driven film and wanted to make a character-driven film, giving people access into who we are. I wanted people to walk away with a feeling, an emotion, a familiarity and if they stop and question their assumption, then great. If they stop and think twice before they stereotype, then great. It was sort of like I wanted to put a story out there that wouldn't otherwise be told."