Detroit Unleaded was also one of 12 films chosen for the inaugural edition of the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival A2E initiative. And its festival run continues October 19, 2013, at the Los Angeles Arab Film Festival.
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Michael Guillén: First of all, I have to go on record to say that I completely admire your ability to carry a drink to three different locations without spilling a drop!
Rola Nashef: Thank you very much.
Nashef: Yeah, sure.
Guillén: Can you tell me about your background in filmmaking?
Nashef: It's really diverse, actually. I did all kinds of stuff during my college years. I had six or seven different majors and kept switching, switching, switching, but nothing clicked. I went to four or five different colleges and universities, but nothing clicked. I was learning, but I was still lost. I dropped out of school at Michigan State, moved to Detroit, and was studying to be a paralegal. I had never taken an art class before. I had never been introduced to my creative, right brain, and a poet friend of mine told me, "I don't know what you're supposed to be doing but it's not this. You're not supposed to be a paralegal." I argued, "But it has benefits." She insisted, "I don't know what it is, but it's not this."
At the same time, I became lost in my career path. I had always been a leader. I had always been that person to bring people together, whether it was through the Arab student organization in college or my church group. I had always been the kind of person who would pull elements together to do events and, at the same time, I was a storyteller. I always told great stories and made people laugh. At 25, I started working at the Arab Community Center for Family Services in their cultural arts department and it was the first time in my life where I met creative people....
Guillén: And aren't they a crazy bunch?!
Nashef: I thought, "Who are these crazy people?" I related to them, without even knowing that I was really relating to them. It was more like I admired them and was liking what they were saying. I asked myself, "What is this?" At the community center I was giving tours on Arab culture and I felt there was a better way to translate the information instead of simply talking to groups of people visiting the center. Then I met my first filmmaker. He was a Lebanese American filmmaker, which is so rare anyway and the fact that I met him felt like fate. I was like, "Film school is so cool. Only cool people go to film school." Then it hit me. I wanted to make a documentary about Arab women, or something like that, and I approached him about it and he didn't give a shit about my little idea.
Then I found out about producing and I thought to myself, "I think I'm a producer. I think I've been doing this my whole life. Pulling all these elements together and making them line up." So—even though he wasn't into my idea—all of a sudden that very year when I was really lost there was a new film school that opened up in Detroit. Me and my friend were driving and I spotted an ad in the paper and the ad literally said, "Hey YOU, go to film school!" I started screaming, "Oh my God! This is it!" As soon as I saw that ad, at that moment, I said to my friend, "I'm going to film school." I used her cell phone to call right away, applied the next day, got in, and my very first day at that school I knew this was what I was supposed to be doing. The very first time I went on a set, all the things that made me weird or odd or anal or just different all had a place on the set. It was the first time in my life when something hit me that solid, that hard, and I never turned back and never questioned it.
Guillén: You wrote the script for Detroit Unleaded?
Guillén: So you're a director-writer. Do you consider yourself a director-producer as well? You also produced Detroit Unleaded, right?
Guillén: So you're actually a director-writer-producer, which is somewhat rare.
Nashef: Right. I would definitely like to drop the producing part, however. I would like to have multiple projects going on at the same time and I'd like to be able to write more, and focus solely on the creativity. Producing can be creative, but I don't want to be that person anymore. I just can't.
Guillén: Producing can be creative, but it's more the left brain. It's more of a business sense.
Nashef: Exactly. I'm so glad I did it because I think it makes me a better director and writer. I know it was the right path, the right thing to do at the time, even though it was torturous.
Guillén: When I first started watching Detroit Unleaded, I wasn't quite sure if I was going to be able to relate to the story. I was concerned that it might be too subcultural for me; but, then the story started to morph and you achieved and communicated—through humor—the story you were seeking to tell. Can you talk about why this was the story you wanted to tell? Why did you set your romance in a gas station?
Nashef: I came to the gas station in a couple of different ways. I had grown up outside of Detroit about an hour and 15 minutes away in a smaller community, not such a concentrated Arab community, and one that was actually pretty mixed: White, Black, Latino. When I moved to Detroit, it was the first time I lived amongst such a high concentration of Arab Americans. I was like, "Yeah! My people! This is great. I've never been around so many Arabs before. Everyone gets me. No one asks me where I'm from. No one asks me, 'Do you speak Spanish?' They know I'm Arabic." My identity crisis came to some closure. I was meeting all these great people and making new best friends and was hearing so many great stories and listening to wonderful dialogue and felt, "This should be in a film."
As for the gas station itself, every time I walked into a gas station there was some young Arab guy behind this glass. Of course, they were all gorgeous and I kept thinking, "What is this image? Why does it keep repeating in my head? Why are all these young Arab men here trapped in this little glass cage? What's their story?" It always looked like they had a story. Then I began to question the glass divider itself. What was this tangible barrier? It seemed bizarre to me. I kept thinking that it had to change your perspective as a clerk. It had to change your perspective on how you viewed the world. Sitting in a gas station hours on end? It has to do something to you because, to me, that glass divider criminalizes people and it's there to protect you from the other. Whoever walks in is a dangerous threat to you, no matter what the circumstances are. I wanted to explore that perspective.
Within the gas station itself, I found so many hilarious interactions. I also found it to be a place where a lot of camaraderie was built between Detroit's Arab and Black communities. It seemed to have a neighborhood feel to it. Detroit can be economically and racially segregated. Everyone lives in their own little neighborhood. But as a gas station, that doesn't hold true because it's a driving city. You always have to go to a gas station. So often times you'll see that people are really mixed within the setting of a gas station. I thought that was an interesting metaphor that embraced many themes that I wanted to explore and that worked out beautifully in this central place, this turnstile, where people come in and out of each others' lives.
Guillén: And that was not only visually represented, but also revealed in the musicality of language. You offered not only your own Arabic language, but many other languages, including slang from the Black community, or the weird way that Roger—the White guy who took care of the parking lot—spoke whenever he came to the window. It was interesting to hear this community of distinct voices. This is, for me, what became the value of your portrait of this ensemble of races and how, surprisingly, they got along. You have an ear for dialogue that you have translated visually. Can you talk about that? About the musicality of language? And why you decided not to do just a Lebanese American narrative?
Nashef: I think that had a lot to do with my own personal upbringing. Because I did not grow up in such a concentrated Arab Lebanese community and grew up, instead, in a mixed community. That was my first nature: to always be in relation to other types of people. That element of the script came from my personal way of relating to others. And, as I said, the gas station itself was such a mix of people, which I basically found more interesting.
I knew that the romantic couple were going to be Arab American; but, one of my pet peeves about Arab characters in film, especially romantic films, is that Arab characters always hook up with non-Arabs. At least that's what I've always found in films. I knew that I wanted a young, hot Arab American couple; but, I wanted to surround them with this bouquet of people who represented, first, people in Detroit and, second, the kind of people they were trying to steer clear from. They wanted to date in private, but here were all these people coming in and out of their lives that bust up the romantic scenes or interrupt the drama or interrupt the comedy going on behind the glass.
Guillén: There's also a musicality to the editing. The sound of the door opening and closing was like a percussive lietmotif, and it drew attention to the film's pace and rhythm, by way of the editing. Editing, I understand, is something difficult to talk about, being largely intuitive, but why was that percussive punctuation important to you?
Nashef: Every single ding was written into the script. I come from a musical background. I grew up playing piano. My brother's a professional musician. Within our family, we call it the Nashef ear. We can hear a pin drop three flights up. My little nephew has it too. We don't know exactly what it is, but it's very sharp hearing. We feel lucky. So the musicality you're talking about was inside me the whole time. When I was writing the dialogue it was, as you said, musical. I always felt it needed a ding, a note. It was like that in the script from the beginning and I loved that, I loved how it sounded, and I constantly worked it in every time I had a new scene, either intentionally or naturally. The script for Detroit Unleaded is where I developed my style. Because I worked the script for so long, the editing followed the script.
Guillén: When you say you "worked" the script, how do you mean that? In workshop?
Nashef: I worked the feature script for two years and it was a torturous process. It was the first time I had ever written a script. It was a huge learning curve for me. I had a problem with structure. That was my biggest issue and I brought two writers on board towards the final draft to help me structure the script; but, what kept me going, was the joy of the dialogue and writing the dialogue. It was musical for me. It felt like composing. The characters were often born from the dialogue. I would hear a line of dialogue in my mind and think, "That's hilarious. Now I have to write a character that goes with this dialogue." Dialogue, for me, is first nature. I could write dialogue all day long.
Guillén: The interruptions that you described earlier—these moments of quite brilliant humor—how did you develop and incorporate them into the script's structure?
Nashef: Thank you. You mean the customers?
Nashef: That element of the comic interruptions came from witnessing it or being on the phone with a couple of dear friends of mine who I would call to chat and be constantly interrupted by customers. It made me think about these Arab guys in the glass cages and how frustrated they must be. They're there for twelve hours of their lives but still have to conduct a life, still have to have relationships, but those relationships are constantly interrupted by customers. The characters were inspired by many different things.
Guillén: Where did that weird character Roger come from? Was he mentally challenged?
Nashef: He's just a character who was in my head and, yeah, he was just off. I always saw him living in another dimension that we don't live in; but, you still like him. I never specifically labeled him. Sometimes you meet people like him and you don't know what their story is. You don't know what their capacities are. You just know that maybe they live in another dimension than you and that's cool. I'm all about time traveling and all of that; go for it! Often times I would see homeless people who "worked" in the parking lots of gas stations. His name came to me first. Roger, he's the guy who works in the parking lot. To me he represented real freedom that Sami, the protagonist, the Arab guy in the glass cage, never had. But he lived in the parking lot and kind of lived in outer space. He thought gun shots were fireworks. What an interesting way to look at life. "You're missing the fireworks show." Which, in a way, represented what Sami was missing. He had something Sami didn't have. Roger started off as a character in the parking lot and he turned into this thing that interjected some magic into Sami's life. You didn't always get it or understand it, but you knew there was something about him that acted for something else.
Guillén: Since you bring up Sami, let's talk about him and Naj (EJ Assi and Nada Shouhayib, respectively); what a beautiful couple.
Nashef: Gorgeous, right?
Steven Soro), Naj's brother, forcibly takes her away from Sami. Does that really happen between brothers and sisters in Lebanese American culture, where the brother dominates the sister? Further, I couldn't quite get my bearings with her. I was a bit confused at film's end when Sami asks Naj on the phone, "Where are you?" and she says, "I can't tell you" and then you discover that he does know where she is. Can you explain to me what you were trying to communicate in that sequence?
Nashef: Sure. First of all, I like Fadi. I have known people like him. I didn't want to criminalize or demonize him. I didn't want to make him into the bad guy because there really are no heroes in the film.
Guillén: With regard to your earlier statement, it strikes me that Fadi is the guy who would have ended up with a girlfriend who wasn't Arab American.
Nashef: Oh yeah, for sure, he's a total player. You hear him on the phone complaining about having a headache from having gone out to the club the night before, whereas when Naj goes to the club, she has to run away when she sees her brother. Of course you will find that double-standard, but I think you would find it in a lot of other cultures as well, not just Lebanese American.
Guillén: You seem to want us to read affection into his behavior. As you say, he wasn't really a bad guy; he was just obnoxious and mean?
Nashef: Exactly. And has a temper.
Guillén: So I guess my curiosity is that—if you're trying to present an image of Lebanese American life, and you're presenting these qualities of that life—you're not really critical of these qualities?
Nashef: No, I don't want to judge them. I don't want to judge Fadi. If you're like that in your life, that's really your business and it's up to Naj—the victim of his obnoxiousness—to break free of that. It's not up to me to say that she should do this, this or this.
Guillén: Are you trying to say that she always knew her own direction?
Nashef: Yes, exactly.
Guillén: And that's what we, as the audience, have to accept. She's not really a victim; she's just temporarily in a victimized situation.
Nashef: Exactly. If you notice, she always knew that she was leaving. She had a plan. She had no intention of running his empire forever, no way, and sometimes—you know what?—you need someone like that to push you. If she didn't have a brother like that, would she have wanted to leave? Would she have wanted to go in another direction? I don't think that when people like Fadi are in your life that they are necessarily monsters who are going to destroy you; they're antagonists. They can push you in directions that aren't always so horrible. I've encountered many people like that—maybe not necessarily in the Arab community—who have pushed me and made me suffer; but, looking back on it, I think, "Wow. If that person hadn't made me suffer, I wouldn't be where I am today."
Guillén: I was intrigued by Fadi's use of the term "up do" girl. Is that Lebanese American slang? I've never heard that term before.
Nashef: I made it up.
Guillén: Ah, well, notwithstanding, the girls in the car were hilarious.
Guillén: You should do a sequel that focuses just on those girls.
Nashef: That's my next film! It's about four Lebanese American girls trying to get married. When I moved to Detroit, I would see these girls who would go to the salon and get "up dos" and then go to public events like engagement parties and weddings to be seen. It's so bridal. It's a way of presenting yourself as a young woman who's ready to get married.
Guillén: That reminds me of a young woman I recently saw in San Francisco who came out of a nail salon with her nails done like eyelashes, which seemed like flirtation on a level I'd never seen before.
So if Fadi personified a subcultural constraint that encouraged Naj's emancipation and the couple's romantic freedom, it was predicated upon the fact that, in themselves, they were an incredibly sexy couple; but, sexy in terms of restraint of desire, and Sami's respect for Naj. You could have easily had them kissing or making out, but the fact that you held back made their desire even stronger so that—when they finally kissed—there was a collective gasp of relief in the audience.
Nashef: That's so cute! I love it.
Guillén: Is that restraint subcultural? Are young Lebanese American men and women compelled to that kind of restraint?
Nashef: Yes. Young Arab women are conflicted. I know I was. There are a lot of taboos that we deal with all the time. For me, they're being under the counter represents a couple of different things. If you look at them, they're so close, right? But they're also separated by this little piece of wood. Yet they're so intimate and sharing all these things.
Guillén: In the realm of such restraint, her dropping her scarf becomes provocative.
Nashef: As is the passing of the Skittles, and the passing of her phone. For me, these moments serve a metaphor of Arab American relationships that I was always witnessing or having myself where you're not supposed to touch each other. A lot of times in our communities we're supposed to know each other, but we're not supposed to date each other. We're just supposed to get engaged. He's supposed to come over with his family and ask for my hand. It's a culture of permission. That's what getting engaged is all about, really. Let's get engaged so we can actually be boyfriend and girlfriend in public in front of our parents and friends and then everything is okay; but, before that, we're not supposed to touch each other. But how are we supposed to get married if we're not supposed to touch each other? It's something we both embrace and rebel against; but, even if you rebel against it, you grow up thinking that way so the taboo is still present.
Guillén: I've often said that the principle of revolution still binds you to whatever you're rebelling against because you're in orbit around it, revolving around it, even as you're revolting against it. Taboos exert a gravitational field, even when you resist them. Since you've commented on this aspect of Lebanese American culture, have you shown Detroit Unleaded to Lebanese American audiences? How will they respond?
Nashef: We showed the film in Dubai, which had a predominantly Arab crowd, and we're working day and night to secure a distribution deal so we can put the film in theaters in Detroit, and I can't wait because the Arab American / Lebanese American people who have seen it are absolutely in love with it. It's the first time they've really seen themselves on screen as young, hip, cool and sexy. If you notice, you don't know what religion the characters are at all. There's no mention of fucking 9/11. There's no politics. There's no apologizing for being Arab American. There's no explanation of who we are as Arab Americans. There isn't a didactic approach—"This is Islam. This is our culture."—there's none of that there. It's just a fun, character-driven narrative. For me that means so much.
Guillén: It bores me when Christians do that, let alone Muslims.
Nashef: Right? We don't always need to be reacting to this representation. If we actually ignore it and make our own stories, that's more powerful than saying, "No, that's not us."
Guillén: In other words, defining oneself by default. Do you think your film will come under fire for bravely asserting its own self-representation? Isn't the film a bit out of the subcultural safety zone?
Nashef: It's honestly hard to tell. So far I've just received great reactions, to the humor, and to the authenticity of the characters. The reactions I've heard from Arab couples coming up to me after the screenings in Toronto and at other film festivals is: "You nailed it. You nailed the dynamic." They can identify with it. Any fire I might receive might be from people who just aren't comfortable with the film's honesty, with how the film discusses dating, which is fine. They can have that opinion but at least the discussion is out there and people are talking about it.
Guillén: Talk to me about the character of Sami's mother. She wasn't as adversarial as Fadi but she drove me to distraction. If I would have been Sami and my mother was snooping around in my room throwing away my things, I would have been furious. Can you speak to how you developed her character arc so that she finally became independent enough to allow Sami to pursue his own life?
Nashef: Throughout my life I've dealt with issues of mourning. Within the Arab community, we have a cultural tradition where the older women—not so much the younger women—are in mourning forever if their husband dies. They'll never wear color anymore. They'll never date anybody. They'll just sit and wait to die, basically. I always found that so sad and such a waste of life. My relationship to death is different than that cultural norm. To me, she represented this cultural norm, which also has something to do with what other people are going to say if a widow rejoins life. That concern over what other people are going to say is a cage. It was her cage.
Guillén: She was in a cage as Sami was in a cage.
Guillén: But why wouldn't she even allow herself to interact with her neighbors? Even when they're Arab American and asking her to come visit?
Nashef: It's a form of self-punishment. "I will not have a good time here. I will live in mourning. I will no longer have friends. I will no longer live life to the fullest." It's a form of survivor's guilt. You see that a lot in my culture and it's sad. I had this one Italian woman come up to me after a screening in Toronto and she said, "That was my mother for 20 years." Whether Christian or Muslim, it's a Mediterranean thing.
Guillén: What makes her shift attitude and achieve her arc?
Nashef: Knowing that she's not really alone. When Sami says to her, "No matter where I am, you're never going to be alone." First of all, just hearing that helps her.
Guillén: Was it because he finally let go? He had been playing into her survivor's guilt?
Nashef: Right. That's exactly it. It's almost as if Sami is enabling her by never confronting her about her survivor's guilt. He begins to confront her slowly by planting ideas in her head, like "You should try that dress on. No, I'm not going to let you throw out all your colorful clothes." By his gradually resisting, it helps them work together. She also realizes she has to let him go. She tells him, "You have your whole life ahead of you. You deserve to fly in this world." That's her way of telling him that she doesn't want to weigh him down anymore. She wants him to be free. She doesn't want him to feel guilt-ridden over her and be forced to live with her and stay with her.
Guillén: It was an interesting shift in consciousness because, until then, she had been laying quite a few guilt trips on him. She started out accusing him of leaving her alone, but then she somewhat abruptly switched gears and accepted his statement that she was not alone. Her husband had already told her that she needed to let him fly, but she had to come to her own acceptance of letting him fly.
Guillén: And in terms of narrative detail, I remain curious as to how Sami knew where to find Naj?
Nashef: I'll admit that there was a little bit of a breakdown in the narrative at that point and in its execution. In trying to establish an ending there were certain things I wanted to achieve. I wanted them to leave together. I didn't want anybody to know where she went or where they were going together. It was her secret and I didn't want to tell the audience her secret. There's a kind of superstition in my culture that—if you tell someone something secret—they'll potentially put a curse on you.
Guillén: Ah, the evil eye?
Nashef: You'll often hear people say, "If you're pregnant, don't say anything, because they'll curse you." I've always found that superstition interesting because, for me, superstition always stems from some real place.
Guillén: And as I understand it, the evil eye is based on envy and jealousy, right? So the way I read that "secret" was that—if you are in a subculture where your individuality is repressed and what people think matters—then that is the evil eye. You're collectively stalled in your individual momentum. It holds true in Latino communities as well. Gossip can tether you. I was talking to a Japanese American friend of mine once where we realized both our mothers did the same thing: they "enemy" people. My Mom can go into a room full of strangers and she'll turn to me and say, "That person doesn't like me." And I'll say, "Mom, you haven't even met that person. You don't know if they like you or not." "Oh no," she'll argue, "I know they don't like me."
Nashef: That's hilarious!!
Guillén: So, as an audience member, I have to be content that this is Naj and Sami's romantic secret that I'm not privy to?
Nashef: Yeah. We had an option to keep shooting to explain things more, but I just wanted to end it. I knew the audience would get it. I left it up to their imagination.
Guillén: Even without exactly knowing what's going on, the result is still satisfying.
Nashef: Yeah. But I do get that question a lot. Perhaps if I did it over again, I might elaborate a little bit more. There were a couple of options for the ending, but this is the one we went with.
Guillén: I did love the final image of the gas pump and of the car driving away and then turning around and driving off in the other direction.
Nashef: It's sweet, right?
Guillén: Finally, let's talk about your Toronto experience. I consider it a pretty remarkable feat that you got into TIFF with your first feature.
Nashef: Thank you.
Guillén: Let alone that you received an award and critical accolades. Can you talk a bit about how you got into TIFF and why you elected not to traffic the film first in, let's say, the Arab American film festival circuit?
Nashef: I want as wide a distribution as possible. Detroit Unleaded was inspired by my community; but, it was made for everybody. The older I get and the more experience I get, I find it more and more difficult to put myself in a box of who I am. I don't want to put this film in any kind of a box. I wanted it to have a world-class international premiere so that it would have the exposure it deserved.
Guillén: How did you negotiate getting that international premiere?
Nashef: Honestly, it was based on the quality of the film. I went through the IFP Labs in New York. They're wonderful. They take films in post-production. They sign your rough cut and they mentor you through the completion of your film and then through the premiere. They started hooking me up with film programmers and all of that; but, Jane Schoettel at Toronto was actually the one who reached out to me. She had heard about the film through IFP and she thought it might be a good fit for TIFF. The first year she reached out was in 2011, but the film wasn't done yet. In 2012, I wrote her to advise that the film was near completion and I could show her a new film. We had made a couple of reshoots by that point to make the film better. Our post-production took a year and a half. We had two or three reshoots and the script changed a lot. We just kept making it better and always sending it out and consulting, "How can I make this better?"
Once we got it up to this level, that's when Jane said, "I think you did it. You achieved what you were trying to achieve last year." So it was a matter of my understanding that the film was not done, trusting my gut intuition, and knowing it needed further cuts. I think young filmmakers often make the mistake of rushing through post-production because they just want to get the film out there. I had already been working on Detroit Unleaded for a year so patience was no longer an issue with me. I didn't care. I didn't want to put it out prematurely. I can see now that—if I had put it out even a month before—it would not have been the same film. Every single step we took was to raise the quality of the film.
Guillén: How did you negotiate financing the film?
Nashef: Four private investors in Michigan. It was a low-budget film so people who were the closest around me watched me trying to raise the money. Then my family, the four investors, came to me and said, "All right, we have this amount"—which was a fraction of what I was going for—and, at first, I was like, "I can't make a film for this amount" and then I thought, "Yes, you can. You can do it." So I took that first chunk of money that my family invested in the film and—as soon as that came in—another chunk came in, and then I called on my community. I started pulling in favors. I found my DP Keir Yee who invested his time and his equipment because he loved the script so much. He was a well-known commercial DP in Detroit and this was his first feature film. He also became a co-producer because he put in so much in-kind support.
Honestly, it was the script that sold the film. People came down on their rates. People donated all kinds of stuff. We had tons of free food. It was a 23-day shoot and restaurants around us were thrilled to support us because it was rare that someone in Detroit was making a film and it was a positive portrayal. All the products in the gas station were donated.
Guillén: Your community support is good to hear because Detroit has a bad rap. Almost everything I hear about Detroit is that it's in dissolution.
Nashef: But this wasn't like that. It wasn't sugar-coated, and even if our environment is delapidated and broken down in all these ways, Detroiters are not; they have such a strong spirit. I wanted to capture that positive spirit in the film.
Guillén: Rola, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
Nashef: Thank you for all your support.