Detroit Unleaded fuels first-time filmmaker’s career.

Rola Nashef won the inaugural Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award at TIFF for her debut feature Detroit Unleaded, celebrated as the first Arab-American romantic comedy.

Out of the 27 impressive directors in TIFF’s Discovery Programme, Nashef was honoured with the Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award on Sunday evening. Sponsored by Grolsch, the award includes a $10,000 cash prize for the filmmaker to direct towards her next project.

TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey and Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda, a member of the Discovery Award jury, presented Nashef with theaward. Bailey emphasised the importance of supporting young talent and the future of world cinema at TIFF, noting that Steve McQueen’s Hunger had been honoured back in 2008, helping to catapult him to his recent Shame fame.

A light-hearted comedy, Detroit Unleaded tells the story of a young Lebanese-American who is forced to take over his family’s gas station after his father dies.

Born in Lebanon, first-time director Nashef drew on her personal experience growing up in Detroit as she attempted to humanise Arab-Americans for North American audiences in the film. Shooting took nine years, during which she had to overcome a serious back injury and invent creative solutions to a lack of funding.

Screen spoke with Nashef just after her win.

How are you feeling right now?

Most people just see the final product. To be recognised to everything you do to get that product on a screen is incredible. It’s a great feeling. The film itself makes everything worth it, but this is very special.

What compelled you to make the film in the first place?

A lot of things. The film is said to be one of the first Arab-American romantic comedies and it features this Arab-American that you rarely get to see anymore, or rarely get to see period. It’s a film that doesn’t have any real “issues,” per se. It’s very light-hearted and deals with things like being trapped in a job you don’t like, or having a crush on somebody and being inspired by that person. I wanted to tell a really good story that everyone could relate to. I wanted to highlight this Arab-American dynamic that I found so special about Detroit, because it’s a unique hybrid community where these two cultures are mixed together.  

What were you doing before you decided to make this film?

I did a lot of different things. I’ve always worked at non-profit organisations my whole life. I worked at an Arab community centre, I worked at an organisation helping people to find jobs - always working with limited resources. You know, “overworked and underpaid”. It really helps train you to make a film.

Looking back, would you have wanted a bigger budget? How might have that changed the film?

Of course you always want more money and always need more money, but our budget forced us to accept creative routes and creative solutions that I think it actually helped the film. It gave the film an authentic sort of look. It’s set in Detroit, and Detroit’s a pretty gritty town. The budget actually helped maintain that grittiness in the story.

How has your experience in Toronto been so far?

Great – It’s my first time at the festival here. I’ve been really blown away by people saying “I know your film, I bought a ticket”. That’s been awesome. I also really love Toronto because it’s so international, with so many different ethnic backgrounds. I really appreciate that about the festival – it gives filmmakers such a great international platform and broadens the greater narrative of their filmmaking.

Any future projects in mind?

Definitely. All my work really centres around this Arab-American community within Detroit, and there are so many stories there that I think I could make films about that community for the rest of my career.

Do you see your activist background becoming a stronger theme in your work?

I think portraying Arab-Americans as everyday people, as characters that non-Arabs can relate to, is a statement in itself. If I can get an audience to be thoroughly entertained and go through an emotional journey with an Arab-driven character, then they’re going to have a really harder time stereotyping us or buying into all the fear factors that are out there. To me, that is my activism. I think it’s important for our image to be positive in our community. That’s how I believe you really reach people, because you become friends with these characters. People are not going to sit and read the history of immigration of Arab-America. People are going to watch an hour and a half film and say, “Wow, I really like that person”. If that person is Arab-American, then I think I’ve done my job of translating culture and connecting people.

Any advice for other filmmakers waiting for their big break?

I have so much advice. I would say don’t let anybody tell you that you’re being overly ambitious because I think there isn’t enough ambition in the world now and ambition should be celebrated, not contained. Find the right people who are going tocelebrate your ambition and rally together.