Cherien Dabis grew up caught between two worlds. Brought up in a rugged, rural Ohio town, the critically-acclaimed Palestinian filmmaker always struggled to find her identity.
“I think that my identity crisis is part of what drove me to become a filmmaker,” said Dabis during a recent interview in Toronto. “I wasn’t American enough for the Americans and I wasn’t Arab enough for the Arabs — so that left me feeling as an outsider which gave me an interesting perspective.”
That unique viewpoint has also furnished the fiction for her first award-winning feature film, Amreeka. Set in rural Illinois, the drama chronicles Muna, an earnest immigrant mother and her son struggling to survive in the landscape of America. For Dabis, it was especially important to play down politics in lieu of a more human story.
“It’s something I felt the need to escape,” explained Dabis about constantly being saddled in the mire of international politics herself. “Growing up, the first question when people found out I was Palestinian was ‘what do you think of what’s going on over there?’
“It still happens so I think that was, in part, the reason I felt the need to make a movie that stripped Palestinians of the politics and saw them as humans beings — through this humanist perspective.”
As such, well-intentioned Muna doesn’t deal in her people’s struggle as much as she battles with high school hi-jinks and the only job she can wrangle in spite of her university education — flipping burgers at White Castle.
“My interest lies in that fine line between comedy and drama, between the humor and the pathos,” said Dabis. “I like the type of comedy that comes out of the reality of people’s lives, that comes out of the vulnerability of characters. That’s really the kind of humor I gravitate towards and in that humor is so much pain. That’s really the sweet spot for me.”
People seem to be in agreement. With tons of praise and a prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Amreeka is a bona fide hit. So one wonders, with success has the struggling filmmaker finally found herself? “There are definitely moments where I’m comfortable in my own skin,” reflected Dabis with a momentary pause. “You know, everyone has a bad day.”
• Amreeka opens in theatres on Friday, October 30, 2009