Listen to audio excerpts from this interview:
January, 2002: Columbia University’s graduate film school. The winter sun flashed through the mini-blinds in my classroom, spilling slatted bars of light onto the beautiful face of a stranger in the corner. Who was she? It was a new semester, but “Directing Actors,” the class I teach, is a full-year course and I don’t allow new students to join midstream. Rules are rules, but I didn’t bargain on the likes of the force about to be born. Cherien Dabis stayed, busted her ass, and ate every pertinent molecule in that room. As my colleague, professor and filmmaker Katherine Dieckmann said: she was incredibly diligent, dogged, and determined to learn the screenwriting form. She’d rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. She was tireless. She just didn’t give up on her ideas until she got them right. Her great determination and focus were a huge factor in how she got her first feature made. Because she’s tenacious. Power to her.
Amreeka, a comedy/drama, premiered at Sundance in 2009 and played as opening night of New Directors/New Films at MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. At Cannes in 2009, it was awarded the prestigious FIPRESCI Critics’ Prize. The film is a universal journey into the lives of immigrants searching for a better future in America’s promised land. Muna, a single mother, leaves the West Bank with her son Fadi only to find undreamed-of challenges in a new world full of seismic changes.
I thought of my own young artistic ambition as I trudged up 85th Street, past a FedEx depot that used to be Merkin’s, a jazz-and-drugs bar. Bizarrely, Cherien’s apartment was in the exact same building that I had moved into exactly 40 years ago when I first came to New York, before Cherien was even born. Here’s the old wrought-iron fence! And the crooked little entrance facing the elevator that I got attacked in! God, the lobby hasn’t changed at all. I feel old, but proud. Cherien answers the door and we horse around, do some girl talk, and apply lip gloss for a photo shoot. Then she cracks a joke that she is clearly fond of, so please, LOL.
Cherien Dabis Are you sure you want an Arab American in BOMB? (laughter) When people Google me, my name will come up next to—
Both BOMB! (laughter)
June Stein (laughing) I’m choking. Too funny. Whew! Okay, I’ve been thinking about your background, growing up in rural Ohio surrounded by cornfields, but going back and forth to Palestine and Jordan. How eccentric is that? But when you shake it all down, it’s so American to have had a dual experience of growing up here but feeling displaced, like your roots were across the ocean. So there’s that identity conflict, a tug of war, and suddenly the poem “Generations” came to mind by Kim Addonizio from her book Tell Me. I need total quiet when I read but I don’t have it, so lean in close:
(JS reads Addonizio’s astonishing poem.)
CD I love the part about her father chopping off three lovely syllables and raising Americans—I so understand that. My parents are actually quite proud; they raised us very Arab. But even still, my father was very aware of how we were going to be perceived. My last name in Arabic is Dai’bus, pronounced with that deep back-of-the-throat guttural sound. But in the US we simplified the spelling and pronounced it to sound like Davis. That was the Americanization of our name.
JS Tell me a bit—or tell me a lot—about growing up the way you did.
CD I was the first in my family to be born in the US. My parents immigrated the year before I was born. I was born in 1976 in Omaha, Nebraska, where my father was doing his residency. He’s a pediatrician. So, my parents were in the ghettos of Omaha.
JS Arab ghettos?
CD There were no Arabs in Omaha. They came over and had nothing and knew no one. My father was spending every other night at the hospital and my mother would barricade us in the apartment because she was so terrified of being in a new place. My older sister was so lonely that her best friend was a nail in the wall.
JS Excuse me?
CD She used to speak to a nail in the wall. She was that lonely. (laughter)
JS That is so sad, but what an incredible image.
CD We eventually ended up in rural Ohio because a small town there needed a pediatrician. My mother was bored to tears. Every year she saved every penny to take us all back to Jordan for the summer. I went to Palestine for the first time when I was eight. We were harassed and given so much trouble at the Israeli border—we were held for twelve hours, strip-searched at the age of eight.
JS Oh, no!
CD My baby sisters were strip-searched. (laughter) Our electronics were confiscated along with my mother’s makeup. My dad got into a huge fight with the soldiers and vowed never to take us back. So every summer we’d go back to Jordan, and he would go to the West Bank on his own. Jordan and Ohio are such amazingly different places. In Celina, Ohio, there were many people who had never left the state. So we got all kinds of questions, like, Are there cars in Jordan? Are there phones? Do you ride camels?
JS Were you ostracized at all at school?
CD We stood out for sure. But we weren’t really ostracized until the first Gulf War, when I was 14. There was definitely ignorance, but the first Gulf War was when ignorance turned into discrimination.
JS A young teenager. That’s a very tough time anyway. Even if there’s no war. Even if you’re not Arab in Ohio.
CD It was my freshman year of high school, and up to that point my dad had been relatively successful. He had saved kids’ lives, so he was kind of like a town hero. And then the first Gulf War hit and almost overnight he became the enemy. There were crazy rumors flying around. A lot of my father’s patients walked into his office and asked for their medical records back because they didn’t want to see an Arab doctor. That’s one of the things that I portrayed in the movie.
JS It’s very palpable in the film. It felt like, Our livelihood is being snatched away from us because of this outrageous and illegitimate discrimination. What gives Amreeka such scope is the political context of the first Gulf War and the echo of that war in the present.
CD And again, like in the film, we really got death threats. Quite a lot of them. They were anonymous, handwritten notes left in our mailbox, saying things like, “We’ll get Saddam and we’ll get you too.” Or, “Love it or leave it.” My dad actually kept them all.
JS Love it or leave it? What does that mean?
CD Love the US and everything that it does. Love the US government. And if you don’t agree with what the US is doing, then get the hell out.
JS Were you terrified on a daily basis? Did you actually go to school worried about your safety?
CD No, I don’t know that I knew the extent of the death threats. One of the most egregious things that happened, though, was that the secret service came to my high school to investigate a rumor that my 17-year-old sister had threatened to kill the president. That was kind of the breaking point for me: Who are these people and where are they getting this information? A friend in high school came up to me and said, “My brother could go to war and die because of you.” The local newspaper was publishing letters to the editor about “the Arabs in town.” It just blew up to the point where there was no escaping it. Prior to that point in my life, I was like, I’m American. I’m no different. I just wanted to fit in. I would go to bed and pray to wake up with blonde hair and blue eyes.
JS So did I! I’m Jewish, so of course, I wanted to be blonde and blue-eyed. You know, it’s the classic thing: you want to pass. Like the Jews in Germany. They wanted to pass. They needed to pass.
CD So this was the point in my life where I was like, Okay, clearly I’m not just American; there’s this whole other side to me that I need to examine. I became really interested in who I was and where my parents came from. And because I grew up traveling so much, I was given the privilege of perspective. Whenever I got used to one place, I was taken out of it. And then I had to get used to another. And then I was taken out of that. It was always the Arabs not understanding the Americans, the Americans not understanding the Arabs, and constantly having to defend one side to the other and explain who I was. I never quite fit in here and I never quite fit in there.
JS You didn’t feel American enough for the Americans and you didn’t feel Arab enough for the Arabs?
CD Totally. I always felt like I was on the outside looking in. I had the philosophical outlook of an observer: What’s happening here? What can I do to facilitate these two things? I felt like a bridge between two places. And I think it’s why I went toward the arts as a means of expression. After the first Gulf War, I wanted the hell out of that place. But I also wanted people to know what had happened to us. And not just us, but what has happened and what still happens to so many others, too.
JS Did you imagine that other places in America would be different?
CD I was in love with New York. From the age of 12, I was begging my parents to move to New York. I had even looked up dance studios and knew that I wanted to take classes at Steps on Broadway.
JS No kidding! That’s right, we were both dancers! Girl after my own heart. Did you do jazz, ballet, modern, what?
CD All of it. Tap too!
JS Tap! You did tap?
CD I did. But jazz and modern ballet were my favorite. I taught classes and choreographed dances for the yearly recitals and dance competitions. It’s what got me through high school.
JS You know, when I look at your body I can see that you could have been a dancer. You’ve still got it in you. You’re kinesthetically hooked up. The neural pathways are carved where you have that mind-body connection. The openings of both Amreeka and your short film Make a Wish have such a kinesthetic velocity to them. They move in the same way that an incredibly agile body can cover space and time, fly through the air and hit all its marks. It’s as though the rhythms are in your gut, moving your actors and camera around. For instance, during a scene in Amreeka we see Muna in the background as a woman in the foreground turns on her desk fan, blowing all the papers off Muna’s desk. They go flying in an arc like a corps de ballet doing jetés. Then you capitalize on the repetition of the fan moment later, so we really experience the frustration, the last-straw moment of Muna’s life as she knows it. You brought your dance background into filmmaking. That’s how I interpret it.
CD I had never really thought about it that way—the rhythm and precision and economy. I work off of my gut feeling about the rhythm of a scene when I’m writing it, as well as when I’m watching it on set and in the editing room.
JS Your whole nervous system is so musically trained when you’re a dancer. You’re never studying music but of course you’re studying music all the time; not only are you studying it, you’re expressing it. You’re the conduit.
CD I love that! I think I knew it intuitively, but I never vocalized it. It makes perfect sense, though, because music is so important to me. I have to have music on while I’m writing.
JS Really? You write with music on?
CD I like to play music that puts me in the mood of the film that I’m working on. With Amreeka, for example, I had almost the entire temp score and a lot of the music chosen by the time we were in production. The only problem with that was that there were a few heartbreaks—songs that I couldn’t get. It all ended up working out, though. Like the music in the checkpoint scene where everything’s in slow motion, I found that song at the last minute after giving up the fight to secure a Fairuz song. I think her people turned us down 20 times! But now the Natacha Atlas song that’s in there is one of my favorites, and it’s my favorite moment in the film, actually.
JS Oh yes! It’s that moment when that boy is coming toward them, holding a box of something. Yes—he’s so young and happy, but he looks so run-down. We see his whole life ahead of him and how he’ll end up a broken man in this place. That was one of the best-articulated moments I’ve ever seen in a film. We were in such conflict as we identified with Muna, Should I go? Should I stay? I can’t leave my family. I can’t leave my mother. But my son will have a future if I go to America. Will he really have a future? And then, suddenly, that moment of Muna seeing in that boy what her son’s future will be if they stay.
Wow. You came to study filmmaking at Columbia University in 2001, the week before 9/11—it’s uncanny, the reenactment—
CD The reenactment of what happened to us in Ohio in so many ways.
JS You finally got to New York, where you always wanted to come—to escape.
CD Well, people talk about New York and how it was back in the ’80s and ’90s and I get nostalgic, as if I had lived here. But I had never been here before.
JS That’s a very interesting concept. I have this incredible nostalgia for the ’60s out in Brooklyn where the Jews settled. Old-school Jews. I have a nostalgia for a time I never lived through. Anyway, here you are, 2001, September, and . . .
CD And really mourning the loss. Like, what is going to happen to this city? It was as if I’d known New York had already become a different place—the paranoia, the suspicion. Fear was so palpable. It was interesting having grown up in Ohio, where there was no anonymity—everyone knew that my parents had accents and we went to Jordan every summer. In New York I was relatively anonymous.
JS I remember you so well when you came into my class during the second semester at Columbia. I looked at the roster and thought, Who the fuck is Cherien Dabis? And I’m like, You’re not allowed to be here.
CD I know! Because I was transferring from another class. I think you did say that, too. “You’re not allowed to be here.”
JS I still remember you working on a scene from—
CD High Fidelity! You laughed so hard during my reworked presentation of that scene, and then you said something afterward that I’ll never forget. I have moments in my life where people have given me little nuggets of confidence that I take and put in my pocket and pull out whenever I need reassurance. You said, “I think for the first time ever, I don’t know what to say.”
JS Ha! That’s highly unusual! I don’t remember ever having been rendered speechless.
CD You literally said, “It was perfect,” I totally blushed. It was one of the highlights of my career at Columbia.
JS I’m curious to hear what your script process was with Amreeka, because the script is masterful. It wasn’t written in this fit of passion where it all poured out. It’s too well crafted for that. You must have worked really hard on it. The passion behind it, what you needed to say, was the fire.
CD Yeah, I was definitely burning to tell that story. I started writing it in 2003 in Katherine’s Dieckmann’s screenwriting class at Columbia, and it was just lots and lots of rewriting until I got it right. Katherine read so many drafts—she’s an amazing notes-giver—she taught me story structure and character development. I had great teachers at Columbia, Lenore DeKoven, Tom Kalin, Brendan Ward, Dan Kleinman. I gave it to everyone, I applied to every lab. And then all my peers at Columbia—I took everything that I could; I was like a sponge, soaking up everything.
JS You were ravenous. Just the fact that you got into my class was . . . it was like, This girl doesn’t know the meaning of no.
CD I wonder what I said to you when you told me I couldn’t be there.
JS It wasn’t what you said. It was who you were.
CD You taught me how to break down a scene. You taught me subtext. That Fritos bag in High Fidelity—how you can express the emotional undercurrent through something like how a character handles a crackling little bag of chips, rather than some big, emotional actor fireworks.
JS I want to ask you about the acting in the film, and the casting. I know you went through a Scarlett O’Hara search for the right cast.
CD I did, actually. I should rewind a bit to say that I did all of the development labs from Sundance to Film Independent to you name it; those programs became my postgraduate education. It was my transitioning to the real world. And then I also worked on The L Word. Intensive years of writing and rewriting and being in the trenches of television production. It moves so quickly. It was the perfect experience to have before making my first film.
JS That is great training because nothing is as fast as television. Everything else seems luxurious after television.
CD Exactly. Well, we shot Amreeka in 24 days.
JS You are kidding.
CD It was four and a half to five and a half pages a day; so, the TV experience came in quite handy.
JS I’m dying to know the budget. Is that, like, secret information?
CD I’m told to say “under five.”
JS That’s what you’re told to say? But what was it really? We won’t put it on tape. Mouth it. No! See, I think that’s something that you should be proud of because—
CD It looks like it was made for more, right?
JS A lot more! I mean, my God, just the two different countries and the sets.
CD The international cast flown in from all over the world . . . And to get back to that, I always knew this movie would live or die by its acting. It’s a character-driven film. It’s not stylized. It’s not fancy in its camera work. I felt a huge amount of responsibility because, in many ways, my drive to become a filmmaker originated with the desire to tell my family’s story and represent authentic Arab Americans. It had never been done before, sadly. So we started with my New York–based casting directors at Orpheus Casting putting out an international casting call. First I traveled all over the US and Canada, then Paris, and then Amman, Beirut, Haifa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah. I had to find casting director-type people in the Middle East because there really aren’t casting directors there. It’s a relatively small community of actors who all know one another. You tell them what you’re looking for, and they’re like, “Ah, you should call this person and that person.” Actually, the process of casting there was so much fun. The woman who plays the mother in my short film Make a Wish ended up being the casting director for Amreeka in the West Bank. The way we cast the movie is that we would go to dinner and have a three-course meal, and then we’d smoke a shisha pipe at the end.
CD (laughter) And of course, the whole time she would ask me 1,001 questions about the characters. What do they look like? What kind of music did they listen to? What kind of relationship do they have with their mother? Their brother? Their sister? Their this? Their that? It would challenge me to come up with backstory and psychology and sociology. By the end, she would look at me and write down several names, and I would call those people and bring them in to read. That was how we found Muna. I told her exactly what I was looking for, exactly what she looked like physically.
JS You’re a casting director’s dream; half the time people don’t even really know what they’re looking for. They just hope that someone walks in and they can go, “Yeah, that’s it.” Did you work with the actors at the audition?
CD Nisreen Faour, the actress who played Muna, walked in with her two sons; the first thing I noticed about her was her relationship with her sons. They treated her like they were her equals. They even jokingly spoke down to her in a way, and she would laugh about it. They had this really sweet relationship. She read the first scene and she started giggling afterward, because that’s just her personality, and I fell in love with her. I looked out at her boys who were sitting and watching the audition and I said, “What do you think?” And they were like, “It sucked!” Nisreen burst out laughing and started jokingly cursing at them. Right then I knew she was the woman. Her relationship with her sons had a similar quality to the relationship I wanted with the son in the film, where they feel like they’re in it together, and he kind of feels like he’s her husband.
JS That was one of the things that really succeeded about the film; they were a team. Was there anything that you added because you had a perfect Muna?
CD No. Physically and emotionally she absolutely fit the role. But I looked everywhere for her. Six to eight months traveling, looking at tapes. Watching every Middle Eastern and French film I could get my hands on. It was really quite intensive.
JS Actually, every single, solitary person in that film was brilliantly cast. How did you work with actors on the set? Did you rehearse at all before you shot?
CD I rehearsed as much as I could with the two main characters, the mother and son. And spent a lot of time with them so they had a history; they were in a dynamic.
JS Did you actually invent a history for them?
CD As much as possible, yes. But everyone was flying in from different countries. I kept putting their photos up in different collages just to make sure they all looked alike. I didn’t see them all together until two days before we went to camera.
JS You’re brave. Did you use improvisation at all?
CD It’s funny because the actors Hiam Abbass and Yussuf Abu-Warda who play Raghda and Nabeel loved improvising. In fact, their Disneyland argument in the car was improvised.
JS You’re kidding! And I thought that was brilliant writing—
CD It’s brilliant acting. And being in the moment. I worked closely with them to come up with improvs. But we only used them if they really worked or elevated the material in some way. We would rehearse right before the blocking, and I encouraged them to be in the moment and go off page. To me the script is a map; it’s a point of reference. When you get on set you’re working with people, and if you’re smart then you’ll use the creativity of those people you’ve entrusted. So we improvised, but it was always with intention and a purpose and somewhat structured.
JS When you say “structured” do you mean that there were circumstances and objectives? They knew what they wanted?
CD Absolutely. They knew not to go off in a direction that was unrelated. They could improv within certain parameters. The scene in the car where the kids are smoking pot: that scene is a huge combination of scripted and improv. Part of it was because I was working with the actor Fadi who had never smoked pot in his life. (laughter) And I wanted him to feel loose and free. We did a lot of takes of that scene. (laughter)
JS The film’s locus is the emotional life of the characters, but it also looks great. Who were some of your influences in terms of visual storytelling?
CD I was looking to the neorealists and social realists. Mike Leigh, for sure. The biggest directors in terms of natural realism were Leigh, John Cassavetes, and Robert Altman.
JS I love Altman. I was in Tim Robbins’s film Bob Roberts—if you ever watch it you’ll see me do a very wild little cameo. So I go to a screening or the opening or whatever and I get into an elevator after it was over, and Robert Altman steps in. The elevator door closes and it was just the two of us and he turns to me and he goes, “Well, you were amazing.” But he said it like a violent accusation. It was like, “Well, you fucking bitch.” Great example of playing opposites: the line is “I love you,” but you say it like “fuck you.” Yeah, I love Altman.
I use Altman’s Short Cuts a lot in class.
CD That was one of the films my director of photography, Tobias Datum, and I looked at for the blocking and camera movement. The way it’s all super organic—the movement of the camera with the movement of the actors. That sort of philosophy—we will block the actors and find the most natural movement for the scene. And then we’ll place the camera, keeping in mind the larger visual goal of the scene.
JS Was preproduction challenging?
CD It was actually one of the worst times of my life. It was just an intensely stressful, miserable experience. For some reason we didn’t have a production manager until ten days before going to camera, when we discovered that we were $300,000 over budget. My shooting days dwindled, and I was expected to make “meaningful cuts” from the script five days before going to camera. So it became a question of what I could cut without sacrificing the creative integrity of the film, and how we could scramble to try to find some more money. For me, it was a real lesson in figuring out what I needed to tell the story. We ended up doing a combination of me cutting as much as I could and the producers getting some more money. Even still, we had a bond company that got involved and came to our production office and said, “We don’t think you can do this.” I think they were literally on the verge of shutting us down. They were breathing down our necks and I went into my first week of shooting so aware of the fact that if I didn’t make my days, I could be shut down or thrown off my own film.
JS Oh my God! When you started shooting did you feel, with all that stress, that you could keep the focus of your film within you?
CD Absolutely. I had to. When we started shooting, the misery faded, and I was so in my element. It went from the worst time of my life to the best time of my life. I never felt so deeply aware and focused. I knew exactly why I was there. And I was really well prepared. You’d be proud. I had my through line, life needs, scene needs, and choice-action verbs all prepared in advance.
JS We taught you well.
CD Yes, you did. Production was amazing. When I got to set I was like, Now I know why I’m doing this. I’m loving this. I finished my first day a half an hour early.
JS Get out. I’m going to put you in the Guinness Book of World Records.
CD It was a little victory, for sure. The production manager called to congratulate me, which I hadn’t really expected after the stressful prep period. But everyone calmed down a bit. And I ended at least five minutes early every day that first week. I felt like I had to prove that I could do it.
JS You’re a warrior.
CD I had a great crew. And my assistant director, David Antoniuk, and I planned an easy first week as far as emotional content of the material was concerned. Of course, after that first week I said, I’m not going to push myself to end early anymore. I’m going to take every moment I have because I had really tough, emotional scenes coming up, and I knew I was going to need every last moment of the shooting day. So it was very strategic. We just needed to prove to the bond company that we knew what we were doing. Starting the second week, I was able to really dive into the work. And I just went to this incredible place of focus; I’d never gone that deep. It was the coolest, most amazing experience ever.
JS It’s better than sex.
CD (laughter) Each night, I broke down the next day’s scenes and thought about beats and what I needed emotionally from each moment. Tobias and I had already talked about every scene during prep and what we wanted visually, and I had ridiculously, neurotically storyboarded the entire film. I had a shot list per week and by day. But I was also willing to throw it all out if we got there and it didn’t work. It helped that I trusted Tobias tremendously, because it enabled me to focus on the acting on set.
JS What was the absolute most challenging scene to shoot in terms of the acting?
CD The scene with Muna and Fadi at the end of the movie. It’s the resolution of the main story line. That scene was actually very challenging to write and then it was really challenging on set and it’s in part because I knew it was like, the “Big Scene.” Part way through shooting it, I started to panic that the blocking wasn’t quite working and I didn’t like the way that Fadi was cornered on the couch. I thought I needed more movement, but it was too late because we were two and a half hours into the shooting of the scene. I called my editor afterward, and he said, “It’s great, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” It was just one of those moments where I got so into my own head, and I let this little seed of doubt sprout.
JS You must have had a real mastery of your emotions to get through that shoot. You have to keep the subject of the story alive in your nervous system and keep the objectivity of the visual. The demands of being a director—to simultaneously have the objective and the subjective as potently opposing forces reconciled within yourself, and keeping that tension intact and not as a source of anxiety . . . it’s a real high when you manage it.
CD You’re so aware of everything, everything in yourself and in other people. Your only job is to recreate human behavior, to control space and create reality.
JS And it’s not ordinary reality, because a large part of ordinary reality operates on an unconscious level. You’re operating in a hyper-reality. And it’s imbued with a consciousness of reality in order to recreate reality. It’s like we get plugged into the Big Socket. (laughter)
CD It’s the most satisfying place I’ve ever gone. In fact, I can’t wait to go back!