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Detroiter brings Arab culture to the big screen

E.J. Assi and Nada Shouhayib in Rola Nashef’s feature film, “Detroit Unleaded” COURTESY IMAGE

E.J. Assi and Nada Shouhayib in Rola Nashef’s feature film, “Detroit Unleaded” COURTESY IMAGE

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

Sami is a first generation Lebanese American who is forced to take over his family’s gas station. Living each day inside the station’s plexi-glass security cage was not what he had dreamed for himself. Just as he has resigned himself to an unsatisfying life apart, he meets Najlah, a girl distributing calling cards for her brother’s phone store. She is Sami’s opposite. Naj is passionate, excited and engaged in every moment of life. Soon Sami falls in love with her and begins the courtship rituals familiar to many Arab Americans. This is the story of “Detroit Unleaded,” the first feature film by Detroit’s own Rola Nashef. “It’s a story about being trapped in a job or a lifestyle you don’t like and not being able to see your way out of it, then having a crush on somebody and being inspired by that crush and changing your life,” Nashef told the Michigan Citizen. “Even though it’s a particularly Arab American story, I think it’s something everyone can relate to.”

Nashef was born in Lebanon and immigrated to Michigan with her family when she was 5 years old. After studying political science at Michigan State University, she got a job at ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services). While working at ACCESS, she became intimately familiar with the Arab social issues of metro-Detroit, and met all kinds of creative people.

One day, she saw an ad in the Metrotimes for the Motion Picture Institute. It read “Hey you! Go to film school!” She took the suggestion. She continued working non-film-related jobs through film school and as she made her first two short films, one of which, titled “Detroit Unleaded,” became the blueprint for the feature. After its premier at the Lansing Film Festival, the “Detroit Unleaded” short “went to 26 festivals and won three awards,” Nashef says proudly. “The audiences really loved the characters and didn’t want (the movie) to end after 20 minutes.”

Entrepreneur Leon Toomey, also Nashef’s cousin, was in the Lansing theater for the short’s premier. Afterward, Toomey says he was “really impressed” by the film and asked Nashef what she planned to do with it. She said she wanted to make it feature-length. In short order, Toomey not only invested in it, he became the executive producer.  Toomey and Nashef spent the next two years fundraising.

“The reason I got into it was not to make money, though it would certainly be a nice benefit and it would be nice to have tons of people look at the film, but really because it’s extremely satisfying to see the talents of so many people around you — that you’ve hired, worked with, been on set with — to see all of that unfold into a work of art for all to enjoy for years to come. That’s the reason somebody should get involved.”

Nashef learned quickly there was a lot more to filmmaking than writing and acting.  “After making this film, I understand why there are so many movies about making films because it’s a crazy process, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before,” she said. “I’ve done lots of large scale event planning; nothing compares to a film. It’s chaos. The whole time you suffer and then, seemingly miraculously, you have great footage.”

Nada Shouhayib, who played the film’s female lead, Naj, was also new to the experience. She had never acted prior to “Detroit Unleaded.” Because she was ivolved with Arab organizations at the University of Michigan, she received an email about auditions for the movie.

“I thought it would be a fun and memorable experience to try out,” she told the Michigan Citizen. “I tried out and left the auditions satisfied I had tried something new and really just forgot about the whole thing. Then maybe a week later, I got a call back asking if I would audition again.” She credits her own Lebanese heritage and lack of experience as an actor as bringing an “authenticity and honesty” to the role. “I feel really blessed to have been involved in such a wonderfully written story … everybody can relate to. It’s about life, laughter, challenge, and triumph. No other Arab American story like this exists.”

It was essential to Nashef the film depicted Arab America without a political agenda. “I think (the film) challenges the stereotype and the perceptions of Arab America,” she said. “There is a certain Arab image that people want to maintain. When you start attaching an agenda to art, for example if you say, ‘I want to make a movie to show how great Arabs are’ as a response to all this fear factor, it is very polarizing. There’s the fear-mongering on one side and then the response becomes, ‘We’re perfect and religious and we all go to mosque.’

“Neither one of those is representative of everyone who is in between — the everyday people of Arab America. Religion doesn’t always come up in our conversation, we don’t talk about 9/11 everyday. As soon as Arab filmmakers get behind the camera that image gets challenged, that dominate narrative gets challenged because it’s coming from a more authentic place.” According to Toomey, audiences across the country have been delighted to see the film’s Lebanese characters in common experiences they can identify with.

“Detroit Unleaded” debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012 to critical acclaim, but appeared on the big screen in Detroit for the first time at a red-carpet event Nov. 13. Even though thousands have viewed the film at 16 different film festivals across the world, the Nov. 13 Detroit screening “was the first-time most of the cast had seen the film,” said Toomey.

The film will be shown at the Detroit Film Theatre located inside the Detroit Institute of Arts for five consecutive nights, Nov. 15-19.  All screenings will take place at 7 p.m., except the screening on the 16th, which will occur at 10 p.m. On the 15th and 17th, Nashef and the cast will host a question and answer session after the movie has ended, with an after-party to follow at the Magic Stick on Nov.15.

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