I will never forget the moment we walked into Abi bakr Errazi Junior High in Jaama Mezouak, Morocco, for Cherien Dabis’s screening of Amreeka…
Jaama Mezouak, is sadly known for being one of the toughest and worst neighborhoods in the world, a place that breeds terrorists, and where the 2003 Madrid subway terrorists came from. In more ways than one it fits Film Forward’s definition of “underserved.” These students are economically, socially and culturally disadvantaged. And, while they may be able to buy pirated versions of films just around the corner (we were told you could buy a pirated version of Amreeka), having the filmmaker present to discuss the film with them was truly special.
Just the day before, Amreeka screened at the Cinematheque de Tanger and the projection was problematic. At first Cherien was concerned, but eventually embraced that these screenings are about content not quality. So, when we walked into the classroom at Abi bakr Errazi Junior High I held my breath as I assessed the situation. The projector was not working and the screen being employed was the cracked walls of the classroom. Cherien did not even skip a beat. The gift was the group she was screening for and all else was irrelevant. In Cherien words, “this is the audience I have been waiting for!”
The majority of the class was surprisingly dominated by girls; and Cherien from the moment she stepped into the room was a celebrity. (The Principal explained that more girls are interested in school than boys.) Since the projector was not ready to go, Cherien took the opportunity to engage with the class. She asked the young students if any of them had relatives living abroad. The majority of hands shot up. Then she probed, “Did their relatives have a good or bad experience?” “What was it like?” “How were they treated as Arabs in America?” “After 9-11?”
One young girl, Moynia, who was seated in the back right corner of the classroom, raised her arm with such conviction it was impossible not to call on her. Her aunt’s family moved to America, and after 9-11 their house was burned and looted.
Cherien followed this and five more similar stories by asking the students, “If these experiences made them wary of living in America?” There was not one “Yes;” despite these acts of racism and intolerance the promise of America, or anywhere was a better option that led to better education, jobs and opportunity as articulated by the young students. Again Moynia held her hand high until she was called upon and asked Cherien, “How did you become a filmmaker?” Cherien smiled and said, “Let’s wait until after the film”.
The projector rolled and we left the classroom wondering if after they watched Amreeka, would their convictions still be the same. 90 minutes later the Q&A began, the students danced in their seats waiting for their turn to ask Cherien questions, some about life in America, some about being an Arab/American and curiously some wanted to know if Cherien is an actress. To them that was the ticket. Moynia, however, who had patiently waited through the film and all the questions, held her hand up again, eyes beaming, and repeated her original question, “How did you become a filmmaker?”
Cherien smiled, thanked her for being patient and launched into her history of critical events from the first gulf war to 9-11 that burned inside of her waiting to be told. For Cherien it was a journey of self-discovery that led her into filmmaking. She expressed her deep desire to tell her story — the Arab/American story, the story of immigration and ultimately the story of what “home” means.
Many people have commented that Cherien’s film feels like a documentary. At first, Cherien admits that comment made her feel slightly insecure, as she was not sure how to receive it, but ultimately she came to the realization it was truly a compliment, an affirmation that legitimized her work. Cherien discusses how she had to be honest with herself and really understand the root of why she needed to tell her story in order to find her authentic voice as a filmmaker.
After spending five days with Cherien in Morocco, listening to her generously share her filmmaking journey, the word “Authentic” will always be synonymous with her. It is why Amreeka feels like a documentary and why the film is such a poignant and moving piece of fiction. Her authentic voice not only touched Amreeka, but also deeply touched the audiences in Morocco she graciously shared her film and experiences with in schools, cinematheques and community centers throughout Tanger, Tetouan, Salé and Casablanca.
Moynia wants to be a filmmaker so she can tell her stories, and at the close of our time at Abi bakr Errazi Junior High, she and the rest of the class still want to emigrate to America.