News Column

Young Arab Americans find their voices in new film 'Detroit Unleaded'

November 10, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 10--When Rola Nashef was developing "Detroit Unleaded," she was more than the director, producer and screenwriter. She also served as chief fighter for preserving her vision.

That meant steering clear of others' suggestions to stick to one genre instead of exploring both comedy and drama or to lose the occasional subtitled snippets of dialogue.

"People wanted maybe more familiarity, and my job was to convince them that Arabs are familiar," says Nashef, the Motor City filmmaker who moved from south Lebanon to the United States when she was 5 years old and grew up in Lansing.

"We're not these aliens. We're not so different from you. We also don't have to explain to you what our culture is for you to get a window on it. It's more entertaining to just open up a window."

Indeed. A funny, tender and honest slice of life about young, hip Arab Americans who are finding their own voices while respecting their families, "Detroit Unleaded" got a warm reception at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, where Nashef won the inaugural Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award.

The small-budget independent film has won other honors on the festival circuit, where it has played from Indianapolis to Dubai.

Now "Detroit Unleaded" will have its red carpet premiere on Wednesday at the Detroit Film Theatre in the Detroit Institute of Arts, where it will have an extended run Nov. 15-19.

For Nashef and lead actors EJ Assi and Nada Shouhayib, who play the magnetic Sami and Najlah, the Detroit run of a movie set and shot here is a special moment. It's also the start of this charmer of a film's quest to reach an audience beyond the festival circuit.

Shot in 2010 and expanded from a short film, "Detroit Unleaded" is a mix of genres ranging from light rom-com to serious character study. It centers on Sami (Assi), a young Lebanese-American man whose plans for college are halted when his father is killed on the job and he has to take over the family gas station.

Stuck inside a bulletproof cage and emotional boxes of his own making, Sami is glum until a young woman named Najlah -- Naj for short -- walks into his station bearing some long-distance phone cards from her protective brother's business.

Soon, a flirty, innocent, yet very modern romance is underway. But can Sami and Naj figure out a way to balance their family obligations with their tentative steps toward more independent lives?

Although Nashef grounds the action in the specifics of her Lebanese-American characters, the film's appeal extends beyond cultural boundaries. The actors say it's for anyone who's been in love before, anyone who's struggled to find themselves or really, anyone who likes filmmaking with a distinctive voice.

"It tells the story through an Arab-American kaleidoscope, but everyone can relate to it," says Assi.

The screenplay by Nashef, Heather Kolf and Jennifer Ginzinger also looks at the relationship between Arab-American and African-American communities in Detroit, which is more complex than it may seem from the gas station's glass cage divide.

Nashef recalls a friend with a gas station on the east side who would escort her inside and lock the doors until reaching the see-through cage, just as Sami does in the movie.

"Once he got behind the glass, he kind of switched and everybody became his friend. The way he communicated with people and cared about their lives and them as individuals and checked on them. 'How did you do on your test today? How's your job?' I thought it was so polar opposite (from) the actual visual environment you're in. In this cage, there is glass to stop bullets from killing you and protect you. It kind of otherizes people. But it didn't stop him from connecting with people on a personal level. That's what I was always interested in."

Characters drawn from life

The movie's main casting event was a call held at Dearborn's Arab American National Museum in early 2010 and drew more than 100 people. The cast includes comedian Mike Batayeh (whose credits include "Breaking Bad") as Sami's hyper-entrepreneurial cousin Mike and Mary Assel as Sami's grief-laden mother, Mariam, among many others.

Nashef chose charismatic Wayne State University grad Assi to play Sami. A Lebanese American who's originally from Port Huron, he's had experience in theater and movies and even acted in a Sam Shepard play in Moscow while studying abroad. He describes how a producer friend ran into Nashef and rushed to his car to give her Assi's head shot and resume, which happened to be soaking wet.

"There was a hole in the trunk of his car and it was raining that day," he says with a laugh.

Assi identified with his character in many ways. Like the character, he understands the small business experience. "The funny part is my dad actually owned a convenience store," he says, noting that unlike Sami, his family supported his dreams of college and his move a few years ago to New York City.

For Naj -- the strong, smart young woman who has to hide from her overprotective brother that she flirts with guys and goes to clubs with her girlfriends -- Nashef chose Shouhayib, an acting newcomer who's also Lebanese American and hails from Troy.

Shouhayib, who's now working at Quicken Loans, heard about the event through a mass e-mail to an Arab-American student group she was part of at the University of Michigan.

"I thought it would be really fun to go try out with a girlfriend. ... I called her (beforehand) and she was like, 'What are you talking about?' It slipped her mind. She bailed and I still went. The rest is history."

Shouhayib, who was focused as a student on sociology and international studies, impressed Nashef immediately as an acting natural. When the director asked her to tweak something in the scene at the audition, Nashef says, "I just remember she looked up and said 'This is fun!' "

Camaraderie on screen

Shooting lasted 23 days in August 2010, most of it at a closed gas station in Detroit as well as Belle Isle and a private home in Dearborn.

"It was hot, it was noisy, 30 people in that cage," Nashef recalls.

"We had to fit cameras and people and egos," Shouhayib jokes. "It's not easy."

But a real camaraderie, formed by months of careful rehearsal, comes through on the screen. Assi says it was extremely helpful to have Nashef, who's lived with the characters for years, to guide the actors through conversations on the different perspectives of Sami, Naj and the rest.

"Detroit Unleaded" opens Nov. 22 at the Cinema Village in New York City. Nashef says an on-demand release is planned for spring. She's hoping for a wider release and interested in doing event screenings here and elsewhere.

Next up for Nashef is a short film commissioned by Grolsch Beer and Vice magazine that's about a woman who works in a mattress factory.

She's also developing another feature film, this one about four young women are trying to get married. And she has her eye on another medium. "I would absolutely love to do television," she says.

Nashef and her actors are proud of providing a story about Arab Americans that goes beyond the old stereotypes and villainous roles in political thrillers and that also appeals to people of all ages.

Nashef recalls meeting a family -- a mom, a dad, and two teen girls -- at the Toronto festival and being thrilled by their reaction.

"The girls were like, 'You nailed the whole (night)club thing.' The mom was like, 'I remember calling my mom and (lying that) I was at my friend's house.' I think the dad just loved it because there was no sex in it," she laughs. "The family bonded over the film."

'Detroit Unleaded'

Red carpet reception 6 p.m., premiere screening 8 p.m. Wed. (Tickets $12-$35)

Also 7 p.m. Fri. & Nov. 17-19, and 10 p.m. Sat. ($7.50)

Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit Institute of Arts

Tickets $12-35

5200 Woodward, Detroit

313-833-3237

www.dia.org/dft

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(c)2013 the Detroit Free Press

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