Growing up in small-town Ohio, 32-year-old director Cherien Dabis, the product of a Palestinian-Jordanian coupling, learned early on how it feels to be different in America. After the Gulf War began in 1990, the then 13-year-old Dabis's life exploded when local citizens began abandoning her physician father's practice because he was Arab. "We got death threats and someone even came to my high school to investigate my seventeen-year-old sister for an assassination plan against the president," says Dabis, speaking from her family's home in Jordan, where she is visiting and researching a new film. "I mean, things changed overnight, and I became very interested in the media's depiction of Arabs, and how to shatter the stereotypes."
Two decades later, Dabis has made a film her teenage self would be proud of: Amreeka, a runaway hit at Cannes, tells the story of Muna, a single mother who departs the Left Bank for Illinois with her teen son Fadi. Fadi navigates harsh bullies at school, and Muna makes her way serving up falafel burgers at the local White Castle -- but the film never feels heavy or sad. Rather, it tackles Dabis's memories with lightness and comedy, a treatment rarely seen in Arab-American film. "When I started writing it at Columbia in 2003, everyone was looking for heavy Iraq drama," says Dabis. "But now, things have really changed. The Obama of it all is really working -- his messages of acceptance. Now if only I can get him to see the film!"
Above (second row): Border Patrol Dabis's favorite day on set was filming two West Bank checkpoint scenes that she and her crew re-created complete with graffiti, vendors, barbed wire and lots of dust. "We even did extensive dust tests to make sure we'd be able to get just the right amount of dust flying across the screen." After they wrapped her Palestinian crew told her it was the best checkpoint they'd ever seen.
Amreeka opens in theaters nationwide Sept. 25