By Danny Peary
Detroit Unleaded fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. But beginning this Friday, you can see Lebanese-American Rola Nashef’s perceptive, clever, offbeat romantic comedy at the Cinema Village in New York. Nashef’s lovingly-made debut feature, which she cowrote, directed, and produced, actually premiered theatrically on the 13th in Detroit, where she still lives because it “is still the cheapest place to make a movie.” Its world premiere was at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the inaugural Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award. Since then it has been receiving raves at festivals world wide, appreciated for eschewing objectionable media-made Arab stereotypes. Sami (E.J. Assi heads a fine cast) is a handsome, young Lebanese-American whose dreams of leaving Dearborn and attending college in California are shattered when his gentlemanly father Ibrahim (Akram El-Ahmar) is killed by someone robbing his combination gas station and convenience store. Sami must stay put and take over his father’s business with his cousin Mike (Mike Bateyeh, who you may know from “Breaking Bad”) and continue to live with his mother Mariam (Mary Assel), who spends each day mourning for her husband years after his death. Unlike the cheery, entrepreneurial Mike, Sami despises his job and never befriends any of the diverse customers on the other side of the bulletproof glass he installed and sits behind all day. But life becomes brighter when he is smitten with a brash young phone-card saleswoman, Najlah (Nada Shouhayib). Naj is attracted to him, too, and though she knows her controlling brother would object, she repeatedly visits Sami and even sits with him in his glass cage. Their romance is chaste, but there are jolts of electricity. Does this charming duo have a future together? Last week I interviewed the personable and spirited Rola Nashef about their romance and her unique film.
Danny Peary: Talk about your background, beginning when you were five years old and your family fled south Lebanon and emigrated to Michigan.
Rola Nashef (left): Yeah, all my memories of the first five years of my life are of a civil war. Then I came here and I sort of became the navigator of my family. Because my parents didn’t grow up in the school system here they struggled with American culture, and I had to teach it to them. My dad worked at GE, Oldsmobile, on the line, and my mother stayed home. They had a completely different life than the one they had overseas. They had to start from scratch, and a lot of times they didn’t have all the answers, so I had to go out and get those answers. That allowed me to carve my own path and I see now that was what made me work harder at figuring out things, like school and making new friends.
DP: How did your childhood affect your politics?
RN: I think that when you come from that environment, you see things differently. When people around me spoke in favor of going to war, I always felt like I had to step in and say, “Have you ever been in a war? Actually, this is what war is like. It destroys culture and it destroys people. And if you had lived through it, you might not support it now.”
DP: Coming from that background, it’s not surprising that you became a political activist, first in Lansing and then Detroit, where there is a larger Arab community.
RN: Right, I went to Michigan State in East Lansing and I was the president of the Arab Student Organization. We were definitely activists and were always trying to have our voices heard. We had political battles for years there. Then I moved to Detroit and worked with the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. I worked in the cultural arts department, and met artists and my first filmmaker, and my activism developed into creative expression.
DP: Did meeting those creative people inspire you to become a filmmaker?
RN: I saw an ad in the paper for a new film school that opened. [The Motion Picture Institute of Michigan in Troy.] The first day I was there I knew I had to make movies. I thought that if I could do it in an entertaining way, making films was how I wanted to translate my culture. I felt that if I could get people to sit down and watch a film and identify with an Arab character for an hour and a half, they were going to find it a lot harder discriminating against or stereotyping that character. People view other people through the lens of media. That’s just how the world works.
DP: Originally, Detroit Unleaded was a twenty-minute short you made in 2007. [Her other short was the romantic comedy 8:30, made in 2001.] Was there a beginning, middle, and end, or was it left open-ended?
RN: There was actually a beginning, middle, and end. It was about this young guy who hooks up the night shift at his family’s gas station in order to see his girlfriend. It takes place in one night, so it’s a different set-up than the feature. His mom is in the short, too, but his dad had already passed away. [Mary Assel played Mariam in both the short and the feature.]
DP: In another interview, you talked about how working in a combination gas station and convenience store is like a rite of passage for Arab men in Detroit. They spend their days in isolation behind protective glass, as if they are in cages. We know about the glass ceiling for marginalized workers, but here I’m thinking about the glass wall.
RN: In Detroit, I kept seeing these repeat images of Arab guys behind a cage. And of course they were all gorgeous, and I was thinking, “What is this cage situation?” It was almost a rite of passage to work there, because all of my guy friends either owned or worked in gas stations growing up–and they all had these crazy, outrageous stories. That was really a main inspiration for the short. It just kept repeating in my head: Is this really what they immigrated here for?” Is this really the American Dream, to sit in a bulletproof cage? I thought it was such a blatant metaphor. There are a lot of “cages” everywhere. There are a lot of places that trap people and keep them from doing what they want in their lives. It is a metaphor for how we constantly are put in boxes or create boxes for ourselves. It’s about breaking out of that box. You don’t have to shatter the box, you can just walk out.
DP: Where did you premiere the short?
RN: At the East Lansing Film Festival in Michigan. It went to twenty-six festivals around the world. Also, it was shown at tons at universities and colleges, and many museums and institutions. So it had a really great run. It had a very diverse audience, and even though it wasn’t accepted by top-tier festivals, it didn’t matter to me because the audience connected to it so I knew there was something there.
DP: When you started sending out your short did you target festivals and institutions in cities with large Arab communities?
RN: The short did really well in non-Arab communities all over. I always felt it was a crossover film and addressed far more than one group of people. I think the whole vibe of the gas station really played into that. It’s like a turnstile that allows many different people to come in and out of each other’s lives. Normally they wouldn’t interact with each other, especially in Detroit where it is so racially and economically segregated, but they do in these gas stations/convenience stores. I think that played into how I wanted this film to reach many different groups of people. It was really like that from the beginning, from the short film. People from all walks of life were fans of it. I felt that I really created something and people were into it!
DP: Usually, when somebody makes a short, they’re already thinking, “What if I expand the movie? How will I change it? How will I fill in more content to make it worthy of being 90 minutes?” Were you thinking about expanding it to into a feature while you were making the short?
RN: I wasn’t. I always felt it could be a feature, but there wasn’t an up-front strategy to expand it. It was more like, “I have this idea that could be a feature, but I don’t have the experience or resources yet so let me make it as a short.” So what happened was I made the short and as soon as soon as it premiered, people told me, “We loved the characters and didn’t want it to end.” I had been so hyper-focused on making the short really good –I think it was the first time in my life that I was that hyper-focused on something–but as soon as audiences liked it, I said, “This has to be a feature. Now what do I have to do?”
DP: Get investors?
RN: Yes. They had to see the short. They didn’t know what to expect and were surprised. The reaction of the audience made a big impression on them.
DP: Were the investors from the Arab community in Michigan?
RN: Yes. There were six private investors and they were from my very close circle of family and friends. They had known me my whole life and invested because they believed in the project and felt that I had proven myself as a director on the short. They also liked the story and the characters and felt that could carry a 90-minute movie.
DP: You recast your main characters, Sami and Naj. Is E.J. Assi Lebanese?
RN: Yes. When we shot the film, he had graduated from Wayne State University with an acting degree just a month before. So this was his first gig. And he did a great job..
DP: He’s a find, I think. Nada Shouhayib is very pretty, but why did you pick someone who had never acted before to play Naj?
RN: In order to find this cast I knew I had to explore the non-traditional, non-acting community, because there was acting talent there that had not been cultivated. With Nada it was pretty instant. At her audition, when she read the part, I just knew she was the one. I remember her saying a line for the first time and that I gave her some direction. She took the direction, made the necessary adjustments, and read it again. And all a sudden she looked up and said, “Acting is fun!” I said, “Yeah, welcome to the rest of your life, you’re going to be a star.”
DP: Besides recasting the leads and having an opening sequence showing Sami’s father until he is murdered in a robbery, did you make big changes when expanding the short into a feature?
RN: Everything in the feature started in the short. But I expanded and developed the storylines from beginning to end and added characters. It does have a much different setup. The first thing I did was have Sami and Naj actually meet for the first time at the gas station. In the short, they already know each other but in the feature, it starts and they meet. The short was a huge learning process, obviously, and I made tons of mistakes, like every filmmaker does. The most rewarding part for me as a filmmaker was to have the opportunity to fix what I’d screwed up and have a full ninety minutes to do so.
DP: Obviously, you’re going for the universal in the feature, but if non-Arab Americans appreciate it, will a Lebanese or other Arab Amercan from the Detroit area appreciate it just a little more?
RN: Yeah, I think that especially young Arab Americans will experience it a differently. First, you never see a film with twelve leading roles that are all Arab-American and they’re all positive. That’s never happened. I think for the first time, Arab Americans can identify with the characters on the big screen and see themselves being portrayed as fun and hip and cool and really hot and sexy. That was missing from my life when I was a teenager and growing up. I never saw anybody like me or who had the issues that my family and I faced being part of an immigrant community. Also this will be the first time that all these inside jokes, specifically cultural jokes, are on the big screen. Especially in terms of the Arab American dating dynamic. There’s so much that is unique and young Arab Americans will be able to see how an Arab American love story really play outs, as in their own lives. It comes with its own cultural taboos as well as norms, rules and regulations that you have to follow and also maneuver around in order to date somebody.
DP: In regard to the dating ritual, what I expect everyone to react to most is when Naj won’t let Sami kiss her but at the same time tells him that of course they’re together. Is that a real thing?
RN: Within Arab culture, there are still a lot of dating restrictions. And there’s still a sense of preservation. I’m not talking about preserving your virginity, I’m talking about preserving yourself.
DP: Well, there are times when Naj is alone with Sami and can do whatever she wants with him, as long as she trusts him not to brag to his friends about what they did.
RN: Exactly, but here’s the thing. She’s alone with him, but after years of being raised in an Arab family, she can never really be alone with a boy. You know what isn’t allowed and you need to preserve yourself for a serious relationship, preserve yourself for marriage. Marriage is still the number one institution in Arab culture and is more important than anything. We’re a very tribal culture and that’s a good thing because it means we’re very strong and we’re very rooted in family. However, it comes with a lot of restrictions. We’re such a close-knit community and the innocence of women is still preserved. Even if our youth doesn’t necessarily subscribe to it, they’ve been raised to think this way so of course it’s going to enter their consciousness. So Naj is alone with this guy, but it’s almost like her entire family is in that room with her.
DP: I love that song, “Let’s Talk,” that plays on the soundtrack when Naj is being courted by Sami. She sings to talk about love and talk about life.
RN: It’s by Hannah Georgas, who is this wonderful, rising Canadian star. I actually found that song the night that we finished the shooting script. The writers went home after we celebrated a little bit and I was just sitting there with Canadian radio on, and that song came on. I loved it right away. It felt like it was the voice of Naj. In the song, she remembers when she was young and sings, “I know that I lied just so I could stay out all hours of the night.” And I’m like, “That’s exactly what happens!”
DP: When Naj gets back in the car to go home, her three girlfriends might ask, “Did you kiss him?” Would she say no but that she wishes she had?
RN: Maybe. It’s tricky. There’s a lot of back-and-forth, I want this but I can’t have this. Naj is an emotional tornado when she walks in, but she’s somebody who contradicts herself because she lives in a culture that’s a little bit contradictory. She wants Sami to respect her, but she also really wants to be with him. A lot of young women who grew up in an Arab immigrant community can identify with that. At the same time, again, it’s the restraints that push her. So she lies beneath the counter with Sami.
DP: She’s on the top shelf and he’s on the bottom shelf and they don’t touch, but I think that is your “sex scene” in the movie. They’re separated and can’t see each other, but they’re in the frame together and she’s in an alluring dress, nobody else can see them, and you’re filming them in a seductive manner. A little slow motion?
RN: No, it’s just slow pans.
DP: They’re sleeping together in a sense. Is she aware that they’re doing something sexual?
RN: That’s a really good question, actually. I never thought she is aware. It is more that Naj thinks Sami can’t see her. But you don’t always need eyes to see or feel what’s happening.
DP: So from your viewpoint, do you agree that this a sex scene?
RN: It’s about holding back. There’s this actual block between you, but you’re so close, and you do have these sexual feelings for one another. Sometimes, by not actually doing the act, it becomes even sexier. That to me is a huge metaphor for these sort of Arab relationships, where Arab men and women are so close and familial. Let me say that if I meet an Arab guy, I instantly know how his mom is, and how his dad is. We have an instant connection because we were raised in a very similar manner, so when we meet each other, it’s like family, almost. We feel that close. If we date each other, we become very close yet we’re not supposed to touch each other. There’s still the need for preservation. We are reserved about actual sex, period. It’s part of our a conservative culture, so Arab youth looks for ways to please our parents but also live a freer life.
DP: I don’t know if it’s intentional, but I guess we admire Sami for respecting her wishes.
RN: That is something that Arab guys are used to with Arab girls. He knows not to touch her. She’s pretty much in control of any physicality in the relationship.
DP: Sami does make gestures.
RN: He’s still a guy, so he’s going to try. But if nothing happens between them, he understands why.
DP: Sami tells Naj that she wants to marry him eventually. Does he know this positively and when he says it does she suddenly realize he’s correct?
RN: I think it’s an assumption. A lot of times Arabs gets together and put their relationship in a box: this has to be serious because it’s an Arab guy, this has to be serious because it’s an Arab girl. You don’t just date an Arab girl just to date an Arab girl; you date her because you want to marry her at some point. You see what I mean? I think these are some of the issues that Arab women in this country are facing, because it’s not always true that we’re just looking to marry an Arab guy; we’re also looking for The One. So there are often these weird assumptions within the Arab youth dating culture. Such as: “Oh, she’s going to think that if I start dating her I am going to marry her.” For Arab girls, as soon as you’re with an Arab guy, there’s this pressure on you. Is he into you? Are you going to meet his parents? Is he going to propose? Are you going to marry him? There’s just this rush. I am generalizing, but this is from my experience. There’s this pressure all of the sudden because it’s an Arab that you’re dating. If that pressure was removed, things might unfold in a more down-to-earth, natural way.
DP: In one sequence, you have Naj and three other young Lebanese women riding around in a car, and they’re a fun group. Is that something you identify with?
RN: Oh, yeah. That would totally be me and my friends. You know what I love about that scene? There’s such a horrible stereotype about Arab women–to me it’s the worst stereotype–that we’re submissive and passive and we’re so oppressed. These four girls to me represent the way we really are. They might be more controlled by their parents than other girls and have to sneak out of the house to go to the club, and sneak out of the club if they see their brothers there, but they do it.
DP: I would imagine that at least one of them would change into sexy clothes after she leaves her parents’ house?
RN: Exactly, the whole changing clothes thing. But does all that really mean they’re so oppressed, or that they’re faced with challenges and obstacles they have to maneuver around? That’s how I grew up. I never wanted to rebel or reject my family, but I had to find loopholes in order to live a freer life. I swear I’ve been pulling off things from when I was a young teenager. I’ve gotta get out of the house, how am I gonna pull this off? I’d have big, elaborate set-ups to get out of the house. Now I wish I could have been more honest with my parents. I’m sure we’re way more honest with each other now, but growing up, I had to find loopholes. That’s actually how I learned to be a producer. To me, filmmaking is all about constantly finding loopholes to get things done and move mountains out of your way. And growing up in an Arab immigrant community was great training for that.
DP: Which of the girls do you most identify with?
RN: I would say all of them. I didn’t base any of them on one particular person, it was always a mix. What inspires me most when writing scenes like that is dialogue. I love dialogue, I love language in general, and I love the way people deliver lines, and improvise–the art of improvisation in real life, not in film. I’m a filmmaker of course but I consider myself an improvisational artist. I learned that about myself. Sometimes an entire character will be born just from my hearing something in a coffee shop. In the scenes with the girls, I can say that my friends and I have said at least one of those lines at some point.
DP: I thought it was funny was how patient the three are sitting outside in the car while Naj visits Sami in the convenience store. He can’t believe they were waiting the whole time, but Naj doesn’t even think about it. Obviously, this is normal for her and the girls in the car.
RN: They gotta look out for their girl, they gotta look out for each other. [Note: Nashef is working on her next film, Nadia's House, a comedy about four Lebanese girls trying to married.]
DP: Did E.J. and Nada need you to explain much about their characters and their relationship? Or did they just know it?
RN: They knew it. They identified with the characters, that’s why I think it was such a special thing for them. E.J.’s dad owned a convenience store, and he grew up working there. Nada had a very diverse education and experiences in her life that allowed her to identify with Naj, a woman who knows what she wants.
DP: Is there anything that you had to tell any of the actors?
RN: I think that all of our instincts were in line. I think we cast people because they were very much in line with the scenes, with the goals of the film, and my artistic goals. Of course I was there to support them and keep them on track, in terms of: What do we want to accomplish with this scene? What do we want to accomplish with this character? What do we want to bring through from your own life experience? We talked a lot in rehearsals. We had two months of rehearsals. People have told me that’s a lot for a low-budget indie, but look at the performances that were produced. You know what I mean? I think people don’t actually spend enough time with actors in rehearsals. I think they take it for granted. It’s not like we rehearsed live. We got together and chatted about our own experiences, and what was it like dating, what was it like going to a gas station, what it was like working for your dad at the liquor store. I’d say, “E.J., what are some of the things that this scene brings up for you in terms of your own emotional history?” So it was a lot of chatting. The main thing that we did was develop relationships. The film is very relationship-oriented.
DP: I think your film is also about how people have a hard time breaking away from their pasts, including cultural traditions. Sami’s mother Mariam is stuck, still mourning the loss of her husband, wearing black and being unsocial. And Sami’s stuck because of her, staying in a job he hates and still living with her. The past is dictating the present. If Sami’s father didn’t die, how would things have been in that family?
RN: Yeah, Sami’s life really took a left turn. He was applying to colleges. He wanted to go out-of-state, he was dreaming about California. If the father had not died, that’s where he would have been. He would have been young and carefree. Instead he was thrown into a cage and has to be a businessman.
DP: Just before Ibrahim died he gave Mariam a car so she could be more independent. He was actually being progressive.
RN: Yeah, absolutely. Sami’s father Ibrahim reminds me of so many Arab men in my community, in that they dream a lot for their kids and want them to have the best of everything. They’re very sacrificial, and are willing to sit in a gas station and make money so their kids will have a better life than them. What I love so much about him is that he always encouraged his wife to go out, learn to drive, be more independent. For Mariam, he was her guide in this new world. .
DP: He was able to assimilate easier than she was. He was friendly with everybody, but she still can’t even visit her neighbors.
RN: Because he was with people all day at the gas station. She’s simply a more introverted person, but if he were still alive, she would be much more outgoing and be more comfortable making friends. I think a lot of times in Arab culture, our mourning process can be very severe. You’re so riddled with guilt that this person is gone and that you’re left behind that you refuse to be happy. Mariam thinks she can’t be happy because her husband is gone. It’s like a form of self-punishment. It’s sad and very hard to watch, because they do this out of love. But it’s an act of guilt, which is not a great thing.
DP: Mariam and Sami–and even Naj–don’t have to break away from their pasts necessarily, but be like rubber bands and stretch forward in their lives.
RN: Absolutely. I say sometimes that the theme of the film is, again, how people create their own boxes of who they are and how they interact with each other. Sometimes we can transcend these boxes. If it’s the past that’s holding you down, then you have to break away from it; if it’s actually a physical cage that’s boxing you in, you have to literally step outside the cage. If it’s taboos and rules we have in our head about dating an Arab guy or girl, then we must step outside them. For me, it has never been about breaking away from Arabic tradition but about how to incorporate all of these things into our lives. We’re not trying to rebel against Arab tradition and we don’t want to reject our families because there are so many beautiful things about that. It is more like the rubber band thing you are talking about. It is more like expanding the tradition, making it more fluid. I believe culture is fluid and identity is fluid. People are always asking, “Do you identify with this or that?” Well, maybe today I do, but tomorrow I might not!