Through the looking glass: Rola Nashef’s ‘Detroit Unleaded’ highlights Arab-American communities ‹ The Visibility Project

Detroit has enjoyed a lucrative film industry for years. Several successful movies and television shows have been filmed in Detroit; ‘8 Mile’, ‘Dreamgirls’, ‘Martin’ and ‘Sister, Sister’ to name a few. Thanks to Lebanese-American independent filmmaker Rola Nashef, we can add another stellar comedy to the list.

detroit unleaded- rola nashef headshotWritten and directed by Nashef, ‘Detroit Unleaded’ is a romantic comedy about two Arab-Americans living in the Motor City. Sami (EJ Assi) skips going to college after his father’s death and takes over the family business, a gas station and mini-mart in the east side of Detroit. He falls for Naj (Nada Shouhayib) when she appears in his late father’s gas station selling phone cards. Naj also works closely with her family, selling phone related materials with her overprotective older brother, Fadi (Steven Soro). To spend time together, Naj joins Sami literally and figuratively behind ‘The Cage’ – the bulletproof glass windows of the gas station.

‘The Cage’ found its place in the film after Nashef noticed Arab-American men working in gas stations throughout Detroit. In an interview with The Sag Harbor Express, Nashef says, “It just kept repeating in my head: Is this really what they immigrated here for?” Is this really the American Dream, to sit in a bulletproof cage? … There are a lot of places that trap people and keep them from doing what they want in their lives. It is a metaphor for how we constantly are put in boxes or create boxes for ourselves.  [‘Detroit Unleaded’] is about breaking out of that box.”

In the film Nashef tells a story about the Arab-American community she grew up with. According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, Detroit has a large population of African-Americans (82.7 percent), and both communities give the movie its characters and context. Because Nashef wanted show the relationships between Black and Arab-American people in Detroit, many of the customers in ‘Detroit Unleaded’ are Black.

Though race plays an important role in the film, another driving theme seems to be economics. In a guest post published on Indiewire’s Women and Hollywood, Nashef writes, “Through close observations within my own family and circle of friends, it always seemed that men were under a great deal of pressure to make money and support their families. And this economic responsibility seemed to trap them in a life they did not dream of or want… This was probably the first time in my life that I identified economics, rather then gender, as the real ‘cage.’”

With Nashef joining the roster of filmmakers from Detroit, (Francis Ford Coppola, Gene Reynolds) we can only hope to see more films with such a unique viewpoint. Nashef is working on another comedy called ‘Nadia’s House,’ about four Lebanese women trying to get married.

Detroit Unleaded’ is now available on DVD and iTunes.

Through the looking glass: Rola Nashef’s ‘Detroit Unleaded’ highlights Arab-American communities ‹ The Visibility Project.