Arab in America: Cherien Dabis

Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Onetime The L Word writer Cherien Dabis’s convictions far outweigh her fear of obstacles. Raised in the Midwest by a Jordanian mother and a Palestinian father, Dabis spent five years during the George W. Bush administration writing and pursuing funds for a film about racism and deracination in post-9/11 America. Amreeka recounts the travails of Muna, a perennially optimistic Palestinian single mother who flees the escalating violence of the West Bank for her sister’s middle-class life in Kewanee, Illinois, only to face another brand of discrimination. Dabis talked with Kera Bolonik.

Amreeka is a far cry from The L Word. Is this your family’s story?
It’s loosely based on things that happened to us during the first Gulf War. We lived in a small Ohio town, and my father, a physician like Muna’s brother-in-law, lost a lot of patients because people didn’t want to see an Arab doctor. We got daily death threats, and the Secret Service came to my school because there was a rumor that my 17-year-old sister had threatened to kill the president. I was 14 and became obsessed with the media’s portrayal of Arabs. No one was depicting what we were going through in that climate. It propelled me to become a filmmaker.

You were doing prep work in March 2008 when Israel bombed Gaza. That must have been terrifying.
There were riots in the streets. At one point we were stuck in border traffic, directly in the line of fire. And while we were casting at a refugee camp, a boy was telling me about Israelis teargassing his house when gunfire erupted. He looked at me not like he was scared, but like he was sorry. I thought, If he’s not scared, I’m not scared. People shouldn’t be able to adapt to certain things, but we can. That’s part of the problem.

Is that where you found Muna’s teenage son?
No. Melkar [Muallem] is the son of a Palestinian woman who helped cast the film. He wanted nothing to do with acting—both parents are actors, and he’s only interested in computer science. I begged him to audition, and after he did, he wanted the part.

How did you get the film produced during this tumultuous period in our history?
I started writing the screenplay in 2003, when everyone wanted movies with American heroes. I’m a first-time filmmaker, with a no-name cast, shopping around a family dramedy that I was told was too light, too culturally specific. It was through programs like Sundance Labs and the Arab-American community that the movie got made.

And that took you to Sundance and Cannes.
Cannes was the first time my mom saw it. We got a six-minute standing ovation, during which she hugged me so tight she accidentally unclasped the back of my dress. It almost fell off!

Special MoMA screening August 18; opening September 4

Arab in America: Cherien Dabis