This winter Cherien Dabis made a splash at Sundance with her debut film Amreeka, a terrific comedy about a Palestinian woman and her son immigrating to Illinois. The film manages to be funny, charming and relevant on multiple levels. She is a FIND Fellow who has participated in Project Involve, the Director’s Lab and Fast Track.
When FIND last spoke to you, you were in post-production for Amreeka. Now you have been to Sundance, received rave reviews and the film has been picked up for distribution. How does it feel?
Incredible! (laugh) It’s been quite a ride. The response has been phenomenal. It’s really sort of awe inspiring to me. While I had lofty dreams about where it could go, I was always very realistic about what would most likely happen. I didn’t allow myself to dwell too long on the big dream, because it was more about loving the process and just giving it everything that I had, and holding onto myself, so that if it wasn’t well received or the outcome was different I wouldn’t be shattered. I was well prepared for a different kind of response, and the response I have gotten has been really tremendous.
Can you tell me about any new opportunities that have risen for you as a result?
A number of things- one, I have an agent now (at William Morris.] Love him and Josh Welsh [Director of Education at FIND] introduced us last summer, way before the film had gotten into Sundance. I tell people all the time that this film is such a success story of lab programs and Film Independent is such a huge part of that. Josh Welsh has been such a champion of this movie. I could go on and on about all the ways he helped me get here.
The film is being distributed by National Geographic Entertainment. Can you tell me how that came about?
We were talking to them about a year or two before we went into production. They were at Sundance, and they had been tracking the project, and so they were at the world premier. I found out shortly thereafter that they loved the film and were really, really interested and we sat down with them and learned more about the fact that they are expanding their brand. They want to be in the business of releasing fiction films and they feel Amreeka is the perfect first film for them. There was a really great meeting of the minds. Their brand and this film coalesce very well.
Did that give you any hesitation since it was their first narrative film distribution?
Certainly. We had a number of conversations about that. We wanted to be certain that they had a great strategy- that they really knew how to market the movie. But they were so great from the very beginning. They very quickly brought on Laura Kim, who used to be at Warner Independent, and she is such an amazing expert at releasing movies. We immediately felt we were in great hands. I started to feel really lucky.
Plus it’s really special to be someone’s first film. And there were so many firsts involved with the film. I am a first time filmmaker and my producer was a first time feature producer. There were non [professional] actors, plus the investors. There were a number of things that came together based on this idea of firsts, so there was something that felt right and organic about it.
And what is their strategy for releasing the film?
We’re looking to release it in late September. It’s going to open in two cities to start and then increase to five and then keep going from there. One of the reasons we were so excited about National Geographic is that they believe the film really has cross over potential. So we’re really working hard right now to start the word of mouth buzz. It’s amazing to me how many people already know about the film and that’s not just from the festivals- that is thanks to some of the work that National Geographic is already doing.
I’m sure our members would like to know how you found the initial funding for the film.
It really has to do with the labs. I was shopping the script around for a couple of years and I did the FIND screenwriters lab and then the Sundance lab and then in 2007 Josh Welsh called me and said I should apply to Tribeca All Access. So I applied, got in and ended up meeting my executive producer. She introduced my producer and I to a whole world of Arab American private investors and that’s how we found our anchor investor. We ended up securing about half of our budget through our executive producer.
Your family has seen the film. What was their reaction?
They love it and they are so proud. We went through a really difficult time during the first Gulf War in this small town in Ohio. Some of those experiences are very real for them, so the fact that I was able to take those events and depict them in a way that is acceptable and universal and light and humorous was really cool for them to see.
Your cast members were virtually strangers to each other when they met on your set and yet you manage to create an incredible sense of intimacy and family. What directing techniques did you use to bring your actors together?
So much of it is about chemistry. I was very aware of my own chemistry with the actors when we were casting. I needed to feel a sense of intimacy. I didn’t get to see the family all together until two days before shooting. I tried to rehearse as much as possible but we shot in Canada and the cast flew in from all over the world, from New York, Toronto, Paris, and Tel Aviv, so it was pretty intense.
Two days before shooting we all went out to dinner and I wanted them to get to know one another on a personal level and tell stories and talk about their characters together. I think that was really helpful. On set they really felt like a family. It was a lovely environment
What’s going to be next for you? Do you have a new script?
I do. I’m about half way through the first draft and it’s sort of the reverse of Amreeka. A thirty-something Palestinian-American goes to Jordan for the summer to connect with her roots. It’s kind of a Woody Allen-esque comedy. It looks at a side of the Middle East that we haven’t really seen- a group of middle class and upper middle class young people looking for love, very westernized, who speak more English than Arabic.
There is sort of a cliché about using up one’s life experience on a first book, album or film and then having nothing left for the second one. Does that worry you at all?
Amreeka was inspired by my family. This next movie is a little more me, and my own personal experience. Thematically there will probably always be something binding in my work. Where do I belong? What place do I call home? Growing up in Ohio and Jordan, these vastly different places, I think I will always draw from that reality.
FIND will be screening Amreeka as part of the LA Film Festival. Please check LAFilmFest.com for venues and showtimes.