The Syria-born, US-based filmmaker talks about his debut feature The Citizen.

Syria-born, Michigan-based filmmaker Sam Kadi assembled a strong cast including Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), William Atherton (Die Hard), Agnes Bruckner and Egyptian star Khaled Nabawy for his debut feature, The Citizen, which is screening in the New Horizons competition at Abu Dhabi (Oct 14, 9:30pm & Oct 15, 9:45pm)

Nabawy plays an Arab immigrant who arrives in New York the day before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The English-language film premiered at the Boston Film Festival, where it won best ensemble cast, and was recently picked up for international sales by Radiant Films International.

Kadi, already a respected playwright in Syria, moved to the US in 2000 and carved a career in theatre, radio and finally film. His short film, Raised Alone, won eight awards including best family film at the New York International Film Festival. He produced The Citizen with Chris Wyatt and Alan Noel Vega, while Ameer Kabour served as executive producer.

Where did you get the idea for the film?

The script took about three years and for the most part was inspired by the American Dream and how we perceive it from our perspective as immigrants and Arabs. What does this dream mean to us and what do we sacrifice to earn it? After 9/11 people thought this dream doesn’t exist any more. I thought that the circumstances became so difficult; it just means we have to work harder to earn it.

I thought it would be interesting to catch this through the eyes of someone from this region. A lot of us have been waiting a long time to see this kind of story on the big screen.

Is the main character based on people you know?

He was inspired by several characters I know, not one individual, and there are also pieces of myself in there. I wanted him to be unique and at the same time authentic.

Why did you choose Khaled Nabawy to play him?

I thought the best way to make this move as authentic as possible is to find somebodyfrom the Arab world who can convey how it feels when you first arrive in America. I didn’t want somebody with perfect English. One of the challenges was that Khaled was surrounded by Hollywood actors and carrying a 200-page script with heavy dialogue, especially in the third act. We tried to be very careful in the way that we gradually improve the way he talks - the dialogue and vocabulary that he uses - without you being aware. It’s very real as the longer you stay in a country; the more your language develops.

How did you get such as strong cast for your first feature?

I think the script was the key. I came up with the story and started writing, then got Jazmen Darnell Brown and Samir Younis on board. Me and my producing partner Chris Wyatt got to the point where we thought we needed to make it more authentic because New Yorkers are unforgiving if you get something wrong about their city. Samir is an award-winning playwright with Lebanese roots who experienced New York during 9/11.

I have to give the credit to the cast because this is a script that not everyone wants to be part of because of the subject matter and the fact that I’m a first-time director talking about such a sensitive subject. We’re talking about some issues that have never been seen on the big screen. So we were lucky to have this cast.

How did you finance the film?

We raised private investment through the two executive producers, who are my partners in 3K Pictures. There’s a system for raising money this way in the US and it’s not that complicated to put it all together.

It’s a very international movie. We see a lot of Italians and British in Hollywood and me and my partners in 3K thought why aren’t Arabs a part of this? We have great talent and there are stories - so let’s give them a chance. I see this as my pay off to the Arab world and also the US, which has given me a lot. It’s a patriotic movie but also something refreshing and honest for the Arab world.