Detroit Unleaded filmmaker Rola Nashef found her filmmaking self in Detroit and that's exactly where she intends to stay. Born in south Lebanon, her family emigrated to Lansing, Michigan during the civil war. At university she floated between various majors, but it wasn't until she moved to Detroit that she tapped into the city's broader Arab-American community and its subset of artists and filmmakers. After seeing an ad for a film school and a subsequent visit, her destiny was paved. But her experiences in Detroit with fellow young Arab Americans formed her filmmaking canvas for Detroit Unleaded, first a short and later the feature version of a story she wrote and directed.
Screening at the upcoming Indie night series at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center next week, Detroit Unleaded is a touching story of second-generation Lebanese-American Sami who works the night-shift behind bullet-proof glass at his family's Detroit gas station and convenience store. He had planned to move to California and experience freedom at university, but his father's death meant he must mind the store. Together with his charismatic and ambitious cousin Mike, he contends with the rival gas station down the street and meeting friends and ultimately the woman who catches his eye, Najilah. Subcultural conventions and his sequester behind plexiglass for long shifts hinder their burgeoning affections.
Nashef spoke with FilmLinc about Detroit Unleaded before traveling to the San Francisco International Film Festival where she is participating in a program to help filmmakers learn insight into distribution. She feels strongly that her romantic-comedy can be a breakthrough and is determined to get it to as wide an audience as possible. But she is also hoping to get back in the director's chair and build her empire.
FilmLinc: Michigan has some sizable Arab-American communities, did you grow up there?
Rola Nashef: I emigrated with my family when I was five years old from south Lebanon and we emigrated as a result of the civil war. I grew up in Lansing, which is about an hour and a half from Detroit. It's a big city/small town. It's racially and economically more mixed whereas Detroit is more segregated. I didn't grow up in a concentrated Arab-American community like in the way Dearborn or Detroit is.
FL: How did your experience growing up shape Detroit Unleaded, and when did filmmaking become a passion for you?
RN: I had explored some things in college where I was an activist also. I was the head of the Arab student organization and a cultural advocate as well. Then I moved to Detroit to work with The Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) working in the cultural arts department and that was the first time I had met artists and creative people. I remember thinking, “Who are these crazy people?” By that point, I had not studied anything creative whatsoever. And then I met my first filmmaker. I soon figured out that for me, there was a better way for me to translate culture.
So, I started putting everything together as this new film school opened up in Michigan. I had actually seen an ad for it basically in the paper and then everything just clicked. I knew this was what I had to do on the first day I was there. I never second guessed it. It was pretty instant.
FL: Talk about this story. Was it inspired by a particular experience of yours or was it a compilation of experiences or completely unrelated?
RN: When I went to Detroit, I noticed all the gas stations there were owned by Lebanese. It was just this thing. There were all these Arab-American men working behind bullet proof glass and I began to think that this has to change your perspective on how you see the world. I had also been making so many great Arab-American friends and as I met them, I saw that it seemed to be such a right of passage there for so many Arab-American men. We'd go up to the gas station and hang out with our friends and I noticed there would be so many interesting interactions between the Arab clerk behind the glass and the predominately African-American customers that he would serve.
I knew the issues and why the glass was there and the controversy around it. But what I also noticed was all these personal friendships that were formed between the Arab store clerk and his customers and I was interested in the glass because it formed this tangible barrier. It was this metaphor for the barrier that we all face in our lives whether they're physical or mental or whatever. It's something you have to leap over in order to attain intimacy with another person.
The gas station became the central location and turnstile where people come in and out of our lives. This is especially true in Detroit where everything tends to be so racially and economically segregated. The gas stations seem to be one of the few places where people actually inter-mingle.
FL: In the story, your male lead, Sami, has to negotiate interaction with this glass barrier, but then that challenge is compounded by the particular rules of dating in the Arab-American community, correct?
RN: Of course I put a little love story in there and a lot of that stemmed from growing up and dating within our own community, realizing we have different norms and cultural contexts that we adhere to. In Arab America, we've developed our own culture or Arab-American youth culture, which is sometimes in front of our parents and sometimes it isn't. This is my community—we're so diverse. We're constantly stereotyped of course and put into a box and almost seen as non-humans of course, but even worse we're often seen as boring, one-dimensional and oppressed women. That was never my case nor the case of my friends.
Actually a big inspiration for telling this story is that Arab America is really a lot of fun. It was a great community to grow up in. Of course it has its ups and downs like anywhere else. But an inspiration was definitely to say, “Hey look at my friends, they're so sexy, cool and fun, you know?”
FL: Detroit gets more than its fair share of negative press, but quite honestly, it has suffered an economic shock over the last several decades unlike most other cities in America. But culture and renewal is also part of that story. What is your experience with the filmmaking community there and are you sticking around?
RN: There is a core film community here, but it's certainly not comparable to L.A. or New York, but there is this burgeoning filmmaking community here because of [Michigan's] incentives over the past four years. There is also a large skilled crew here because we also have one of the largest commercial industries in the country because of the big three, G.M., Ford and Chrysler. Their commercials are shot here. And that commercial community has transitioned into filmmaking, which has allowed for a diverse crowd of directors, producers, writers etc.
I don't feel the urge to move to New York. People have asked me if I'm moving there now, but no, Detroit is still the cheapest place to make a movie. It's incredible and really my work centers around Detroit. I really don't see myself leaving and I'm really surrounded by great and wonderful artists and my entire family is here. I look forward to working here especially with the incentives. That's the big issue here right now. I'd still like to work on the East and West coasts, but I'd like to be centered here and build my empire [laughs].
FL: And what's coming up? Will you stay in the director's chair?
RN: I'm working on my next film right now, even as Detroit Unleaded is still touring around. It is called Nadia's House and it's about four Lebanese girls trying to get married. Marriage is the foundation. But in the same vein as Detroit Unleaded, the comedy centers around these four girls.
I'm also attracted to television directing and eventually even the theater world. I just love directing, though I've never done theater before, but I'd like to explore all these things, not just feature filmmaking. I just want to create as much content as I possibly can.
See Detroit Unleaded at Indie Night May 7.