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Directing Detroit through the eyes of Arab culture

The award winning film “Detroit Unleaded” and director visited CSULB.

Jesus Ambrosio, Diversions Editor

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The only thing that separates Sami from his annoying costumers is murky and muffled bulletproof glass, that could shatter after just three shots.

“Detroit Unleaded” follows Sami (EJ Assi), who is forced to run the family gas station after his father is killed while working at the station one night.

The film was screened at the University Theater on Friday; director and writer of the film Rola Nashef was present for a Q & A after the screening.

Nashef was born in Lebanon, but raised in Lansing, Michigan, which she said is about an hour away from Detroit.

She dropped out of Michigan State and changed her major a handful of times from marketing, to public relations, to contract law, to sociology. Though the changing around was unintentional, she said everything she studied has helped her become a filmmaker.

Her inspiration for the film came from leaving Lansing and living in Detroit.

Most of her male Arab friends were bound to gas stations and liquor stores; she described this as a rite of passage.

“I lived across the street from a gas station, and I would go there every day and buy pack of cigarettes, and see the wackiest things,” Nashef said.

In the film, the gas station is like a turnstile; people often come in and out of each other’s lives. Nashef said her film is a “slice of life, romantic dramedy,” and it displays her version of Detroit.

She described the gas stations in Detroit as subways – places where people mingle and see each other. She said she found it strange that it always seemed to be happening through this bulletproof barrier.

“It was the first time I had seen bullet proof glass in gas stations, liquor stores and everywhere,” Nashef said. “I felt really segregated from everyone.”

Her biggest inspiration was to create realistic Arab characters based on her friends, she said.

“I grew up with negative portrayals of Arabs on television shows,” said Nashef. “I never saw an Arab teenage girl going through what I was going through.”

She wanted audiences to identify with things like having a crush on someone, or being trapped at a job they didn’t like, but doing it through an Arab-American dynamic, she said.

Nashef was proud to make a film in which Arab-Americans are treated as “young, hip, cool and sexy,” she said. To her, this image of the Arab community is not uncommon, but she said she feels mainstream media doesn’t reflect the culture like she sees it.

“Media normalizes things for us,” Nashef said. “When your image is completely missing, or on the flip side, you are bombarded with negative images, you begin to [feel] lost.”

She said she tried to display “bouquet” of Arab guys, she said wanted characters to diverse individuals not a representation of culture.

It was important to make characters the audiences could relate and compare to especially for other Arab-Americans, but hopes other people of other cultures enjoyed the film as well, she said.

“Dating in secrecy and lying to our parents a little bit, but it’s never done in a disrespectful way. It’s done to protect our parents, these are some things that are unique to our culture,” Nashef said. “[The film] is not explaining culture, but experiencing it.”

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1250 Bellflower Blvd. Long Beach, CA 90840 -- LA-4 201  --  (562) 985-8000.
Directing Detroit through the eyes of Arab culture