When Cherien Dabis first proposed making a film about her family's experiences as Arab immigrants to the United States, nobody took her seriously.
They thought the idea too light, or too difficult for American audiences to grasp, or too sensitive politically. "Granted, this was 2004-5, when everyone was looking for the next big Iraq war drama," Dabis says. "But there was also this fear, that an Arab American making a film about Arab Americans would be inherently biased. They said it would be better if it were put in the hands of a non-Arab American."
Fast-forward four years, and Dabis, a 32-year-old graduate of Columbia film school in New York, finds herself the first-time director of an art house hit - and perhaps something more significant besides. Her film, Amreeka, has received rave reviews in America with glowing tributes from such influential publications as The New York Times, matching the reaction when it premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival, a showcase for emerging talent and cutting-edge films.
In fact, The New York Times went so far as it call it "one of the most accomplished" films charting the journey of a non-European immigrant family to the US. "Amreeka believes in people, and its faith rubs off on you," said the review. But raising money for Amreeka was not easy. All the obvious US funding sources in the independent film world said no, so Dabis petitioned her Arab American contacts instead. "No one saw anything in this film until it was done," she said. "I needed to rely on my own community to get it made."
Abu Dhabi was one of those Dabis relied on. Partly funded by Imagenation, the film venture of Abu Dhabi Media Company, also owner of The National, its success will provide comfort as Gulf-based film companies attempt to secure a toehold in the US market. Imagenation has pledged US$1 billion (Dh3.7bn) for production of feature films and digital content over the next five years. Its aim is to make award winning, commercially successful films, with a target of six to eight films per year.
Shorts, a family action adventure from Robert Rodriguez, the director of Spy Kids, and Abu Dhabi's first venture into Hollywood, failed to shine at the box office, with mediocre reviews, making Amreeka's success all the more important as the country tries to carve out a path into Hollywood. Having just opened commercially in New York, Los Angeles and a handful of other US cities, it gives American cinema-goers perhaps their first glimpse into the realities of life as an Arab family during some singularly trying political times. It's due to be released in the Gulf towards the end of December.
The film, charting the journey of a divorced woman and her teenage son from the West Bank to rural Illinois, takes place against the backdrop of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It could easily have opted for a tone of political stridency and point-scoring. Muna, the main character played by the Palestinian actress Nisreen Faour, and her son Fadi (Mekar Muallem) undergo intense searches and interrogation by immigration and customs officials when they arrive. They face idle racism, ignorance and, eventually, a run-in with the local police.
But the strength of the film is that it is rooted firmly in the world of family. In fact, the cultural clash between the newcomers and their more established relatives - Muna's sister Raghda (played by the great Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass) and her family - is every bit as riveting, and complicated, as the broader clash between the immigrants and the Midwestern natives they live among. The family argues, laughs, tries and fails to keep secrets, mangles its English, and finds, above all, a way to survive.
This is the sort of film the British have been making for years - an exuberant social comedy about the incongruities and casual cruelties of immigrant life. (East is East and Bend It Like Beckham are just two of the more commercially successful examples from the past 15 years.) In America, though, the phenomenon is something altogether unfamiliar. For as long as anyone can remember, Arabs have been depicted on film in the United States as terrorists or greedy oil sheikhs, and very little besides. Arab American actors and writers have been rebelling against that notion for a while - exploring other avenues in stand-up comedy and theatre pieces, and scripts for television series and feature films.
Amreeka may just be the vehicle they have all been waiting for - an Arab American film that demonstrates the viability of the genre. Dabis herself knew that her movie would stand or fall by its execution - the quality of the acting, the way it was shot, the tone she managed to achieve. To judge by the critics - Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called it a "film of surpassing quality" - she more than met her own expectations.
And audiences are responding. Arab Americans have told her she has made them feel proud for the first time in years. Non-Arabs have been moved simply by the appealing nature and compelling story of Muna and her relatives. "I feel I've just spent an hour and a half with your family," one audience member told Dabis. In a sense, she had: the story is based very closely on Dabis's own family story. She found herself as a teenager in a remote town in Ohio called Celina, about an hour's drive north of Dayton. Her father, like the father in the movie, was a physician whose patients walked out on him during a conflict with Iraq - in his case, the 1991 Gulf war rather than the 2003 invasion. Her mother, like Raghda, had mixed feelings about being in the United States at all - and has in fact since moved back to her native Jordan.
The run-in with the police is loosely inspired by an episode at Dabis's high school, when the Secret Service came and detained her 17-year-old sister after receiving a tip-off that she had threatened the life of President George HW Bush. Her sister had made no such threat, but she was known - like one of the teenagers in the film - for being very outspoken about her political views in government classes. Dabis thinks someone wanted to shut her up, and used the political climate of the time to do so.
Dabis's experiences in the Midwest made her determined to spend her adult life demolishing stereotypes. At first she thought she would do this by going into politics - she moved to Washington at one point - but soon decided there was "no truth in politics" and opted to tell stories instead. "I decided to go with fiction," she said. "People are much more willing to let their guard down when you tell them stories."
The UAE is hoping that its investments in Hollywood and film festivals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which last year drew stars including Nicolas Cage, Oliver Stone, Salma Hayek, Meg Ryan and Antonio Banderas, will help to nurture home-grown talent. Other ventures such as the New York Film Academy in Abu Dhabi and the newly established Emirates Natural History Unit, staffed with producers from the BBC, all have a focus on training young Emiratis and fostering a local filmmaking scene.
And the momentum is gaining pace. The Scene Club in Dubai, run by the Emirati director and producer Nayla al Khaja - shows independent short films and features yet to receive cinema release, and tries to encourage local talent. Now that Dabis has proved herself, the tap of US funding is beginning to open for her, and she intends to take advantage with her next feature, about an Arab American who travels to Jordan for a contentious family wedding.
Dabis, who will be touring the Levant next month for Ramallah's Al Kasaba International Film Festival, feels an unmistakable sense of mission. "I'm telling it from the inside," she said. "It's much more authentic that way. In the end this is about how all families are the same - about the universality of it as well as the differences." * additional reporting by Loveday Morris