Like many Arab Americans, Neal AbuNab is not satisfied with the quality of the films and documentaries that have been produced claiming to convey the Arab American perspective.
And he’s not talking about the technical quality. He is rightly critical of the quality of the content.
“They don’t tell a story. They are done very well, but they tend to focus on the message more than on just telling a story which is the essence of good writing, good scripting and good messaging,” says AbuNab, a filmmaker based in Detroit who just completed his new film, “The Arabian Dream: A Tale of Arab Americans.”
The fact is most documentaries that are produced focus too heavily on a political message. They are filled with irrefutable facts, but are weighed down by one-sided, poorly written scripts that push the political rhetoric more than the compelling tale.
That may work for Arabs actively engaged in the political dissertation and in debates and confrontations, but it doesn’t work for Americans. As a consequence, most efforts to tell the Arab American perspective fail the most important test of success: will Americans listen and hear what is being said.
“To reach Americans, you have to tell them the story and focus on the story above everything,” says AbuNab, who is also a newspaper columnist. “I think my film tells a story that Americans and Arabs and Muslims can hear and understand.”
AbuNab is right. More than any other production I have seen to date, his film captures the secret of filmmaking in America. His storyline is compelling and carries an important message about Arabs in America.
“We’re no different than anyone else,” explains AbuNab. “Our experience is their experience.”
AbuNab may in fact represent a new kind of Arab American filmmaker, one who matches quality filmmaking with quality writing and content, something missing from most other efforts.
The film is an untraditional documentary combined with Hollywood style filming. It tells his perspective as a Muslim Arab who immigrated with his parents from Palestine to America, and shares the stories that he encounters around him, the true Arab American experience. It tells the story of Arab American experiences in the Wake of Sept. 11, but it goes way beyond.
Perspectives and clips include shots of Imad Hamad, the Palestinian who was singled out for harassment and was threatened with expulsion from the country. The Arab community around the country rallied around the defense of Hamad, who was falsely accused of being anti-American and supporting extremist activities abroad.
In fact, we see that Hamad is very American and is today the Midwest Director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) based in Detroit.
We also see the world through the eyes of many Arab Americans including Osama Siblani, publisher of the award winning Arab American News Newspaper, firefighter Don Unis, Imam Hisham al-Hussainy, businessman Samir Olabi, Judge Salem Salamey, Judge Billy Shaheen and many others.
The story of Don Unis is a story that many Arabs around the country will easily identify with. AbuNab tells it with grace and detail and human interest.
Unis is a Detroit area firefighter and American patriot. He is also Arab and Muslim. In 2003 and 2004, Arab Americans rallied to name a local school that had a predominantly large Arab and Muslim student population in his honor to recognize his achievements as an American and his contributions to the local kids and community.
At first, the school board voted down the proposal, even though the student body is predominantly Arab American. In fact, while Dearborn’s population of 100,000 is more than 30,000 Arab, the population of Dearborn’s schools is more than 50 percent Arab making it one of the largest Arab school districts in the country.
School officials, none of them Arab, immediately resisted the proposal coming up with all kinds of excuses to deny the community’s needs. But after a strong fight that AbuNab describes from a human perspective, the school board was forced to compromise, naming the school Lucille McCollough Elementary school and its sister school the Donald A. Unis Middle School.
The fight is one fought throughout the United States to build mosques in the suburbs of Chicago, elect officials in San Francisco and recognize Arab American achievements in nearly every profession.
When the world came crashing down on Sept. 11 with bigotry and racism, one articulate journalist stood tall and championed Arab American rights. Siblani was quoted and interviewed locally and on national TV, exposing the lies and putting the spotlight on acts of anti-Arab discrimination in this country.
His own newspaper office was firebombed. Even today, many “mainstream” journalists claim that there was no backlash and deny that nearly 14 people who looked Middle Eastern were murdered in post Sept. 11 hate related backlashes.
Imam Al-Hussainy’s story is one that details the complexity of the Iraqi American community. The Sheik was among those leading both support of George W. Bush in the 2000 election and the invasion of Iraq. But later, he explained eloquently that he opposes the American occupation of Iraq, explaining he opposes the dictator Saddam Hussein.
Among the many stories in the two hour film is a consistent message of Arab Americanism, something that will ring solid during the Fourth of July celebrations.
AbuNab’s family is from East Jerusalem, refugees of the Israeli occupation of the city. They moved to Ramallah and immigrated to America in 1979 where he immediately launched his businesses and also became active in the growing Arab American community in Dearborn and Detroit.
Says AbuNab in the film, “I’m more American than anything else now.”
AbuNab also takes the viewer through the reality of the despondency of Detroit, which is burdened by economic hardships. The challenges facing the region’s large African American community are an appropriate backdrop for the Arab American story and you quickly learn that many African Americans identify closely with the experience of Arab Americans.
Both are the victims of discrimination and a society that continues to pull them down rather than to help them stand up. Together, the two groups work together, a secret behind the success of Dearborn’s Arab American community that is often not fully explored.
He touches on the inevitable discussion of the Arab Israeli conflict, but also puts it in a proper perspective when the focus is understanding the diversity of Arabs in America. Too often, the heaviness of the pro-Arab rhetoric turns off American sympathy.
In AbuNab’s film, clearly, Americans will identify with Arab Americans and, in the end, with their just causes, too.
It would have been easy for AbuNab to satisfy the political hunger of the Arab American activists’ circle which often dominates all things Arab American.
Instead, AbuNab reaches beyond the top layer that we often see and helps humanize the Arab American story. The script is well written and it is clear the script more than the politics drives the story line.
That is very effective, something other aspiring Arab American filmmakers could learn from AbuNab. This is his first full length film.
Although the cast is set in Dearborn’s and Detroit’s Arab American experience, “The Arabian Dream” is clearly a microcosm of the experience challenging Arab Americans throughout the United States.
Every Arab American will identify with AbuNab’s talented script. At the same time, nothing is produced in the Arab American community that doesn’t come under some criticism. The Arab American community too often focuses on the small criticisms rather than on the larger potentials for success.
AbuNab’s production is clearly a major success.