Cherien Dabis' feature debut Amreeka, a richly observed story of Arab-American immigrants in middle America, hits very close to home. 'I grew up in Ohio, going back to Jordan every summer,' Dabis says. 'I had a sort of identity crisis - I wasn't American enough for the Americans nor Arab enough for the Arabs. Film became my way of bridging the gap between these two different places.'
In the film, Nisreen Faour stars as Muna, a divorced mother who moves with her teenage son from Palestine to rural Illinois where her sister (Hiam Abbass) lives. Muna takes a job at a fast-food restaurant while her son rebels after his schoolmates brand him a terrorist. Dabis wanted the film to show the lives of ordinary Arab-Americans: 'I wanted to tell the human side of this story and blend that humour and pathos.'
Amreeka had its well-received world premiere at Sundance and will be the opening night film on March 25 for the New Directors/New Films series from New York's MoMA and The Film Society of Lincoln Center. Dabis says so far 'the response has really been tremendous'.
She started working on Amreeka back in 2003 when she was a graduate student at Columbia University, and over the years took it to industry initiatives at Sundance, Berlin, Film Independent, Tribeca, Dubai and Cannes. Dabis met Canada-based producer Christina Piovesan in 2006 and they continued the fight for funding a debut film without household-name actors. 'The sentiment at the time was that it was too light; everyone then was looking to finance heavier Iraq war films,' Dabis says of the industry response. 'And of course the irony now is that audiences want something lighter.'
Executive producer Alicia Sams, who they met at Tribeca All Access, helped tap Arab-American private equity. Kuwaiti co-producer Al-Zain Al-Sabah of Eagle Vision brought in Middle Eastern pre-sales for about 10% of the budget. Also, the tax credit for shooting in the Canadian province of Manitoba 'became an integral part of our financing', Dabis adds. So Amreeka was set up as a US-Canada-Kuwait unofficial co-production with a budget of less than $10m. The film shot for six days in Ramallah and Bethlehem and then for 18 days in Canada. At press time, William Morris Independent was finalising a US deal; E1 is handling international sales and has closed a French deal with Memento.
Following her Sundance premiere, Dabis (who has made shorts and written for TV series The L Word) had two weeks of meetings in Los Angeles. 'I feel lucky to have my first feature under my belt,' she says, adding with a laugh, 'Now after five years people want to work with me!'
She has more personal stories to tell. 'There's a real familiarity to telling stories you know so well. I probably have a few more in me,' she says. The script she is writing now, May In The Summer, about an Arab-American woman visiting her upper middle-class family in Jordan, is 'a mirror image of Amreeka'.