“I felt like I could not get hired. I felt alone”
Look back at the 2008 recession: Economic anxiety hummed under the surface of every social interaction. Estranged from the workforce, young college graduates became alienated and mired in uncertainty. This is the frequency at which Heidi Saman’s debut feature film, Namour, buzzes. The movie, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year and will be available on Netflix on March 15, captures the often mundane existence of Steven, an Egyptian-American 20-something working as a valet at an upscale Los Angeles restaurant after the financial crash. Saman’s lengthy, quiet shots of Steven render his loneliness into an atmospheric bellow that vibrates throughout every frame—in his interactions with his Arab-American family and in his quiet occupation of other people’s extravagant cars, driving them solemnly through a gray scale Los Angeles. I talked to Saman about immigrant narratives and why she had so much trouble making her film.
This is your first feature film. Tell me a little bit about the process of getting it made. It was fully independently funded before it was acquired by ARRAY, Ava Duvernay’s film company. What was that like, selling a movie about an Arab American who’s not a terrorist?
It was very difficult. Steven, the main character, kind of appeared to me as a character does when you start writing something, and I just wrote the script from that space, from just writing about a person who’s emotionally complex, who’s feeling pushed around, who’s trying to figure out his way in the world. So I started reaching out to investors—Arab investors included—and I was really shocked at the pushback. It was a little surprising. They really wanted market-approved ideas—movies (reflecting) the common stories about immigrants, stories about (immigrant characters) needing to get married, (who were) oppressed religiously, or terrorists deciding whether they wanted to be a terrorist or not. I’ve watched those films. I’ve enjoyed some of those films. But this just wasn’t that film. I had a really hard time finding funding for this.
I’m an Arab-American myself, but I think the parts that I identified most with were not actually the cultural aspects, but rather the financial difficulties that Steven faced, and his feelings of alienation and isolation. What attracted you to that kind of storyline?
What you tapped into was really what I was trying to tap into. He’s a smart guy. He graduated from college. And it was a feeling that I had when I graduated from college, which was that I was curious about the world. I think I was fairly intelligent and I felt really alone. I felt like everyone was saying, ‘Oh, your 20s are supposed to be the time of your life.’ And I really felt my lack of experience. I felt like I could not get hired. I felt alone.
It’s just that time of your life. You’re really confronting the fact that you’re not going to take every path that you imagined your life would take … combine that with class and social mobility and not being able to move up the ladder the way many of our parents did. My parents moved from wherever they were in Egypt to a middle-class place in the States and I personally felt that I couldn’t do that myself. How am I going to do that? I think some of that is in Steven as well.
I think we see that class struggle represented in the film. Steven’s a valet and he’s constantly in contact with or in proximity to wealth—and specifically Los Angeles wealth. Why did you choose to make him a valet and not, say, a waiter?
I think for all the reasons you just stated. Those are the things that he’s told to aspire to. If he works around that type of wealth, then maybe somehow it will rub off on him. I think there’s something in him that believes that.
But I also felt that the valet is one of maybe a few places in Los Angeles where classes collide. I know more and more people are starting to take public transportation in LA. I live in Philly. I’m a pedestrian. I don’t even own a car in the city. So I’m intersecting a lot of different people from different walks of life. And I think, in LA, that’s harder to do.
I also find it to be a weirdly intimate thing, to be in someone’s car, in this private space. A lot of thinking gets done in cars. It’s your home base in Los Angeles. A valet driver is in the car for maybe three minutes, but there’s something intimate about it. I think it’s ripe for conflict or for story.
What I liked about Namour is that it didn’t feel like an ‘Arab American film.’ It felt like an American film with Arab protagonists. The central struggle is not about his cultural identity. It’s his identity as a man, and as a financial provider, and as a worker. But I did identify with this idea of aspirational wealth, which I think is inherent in a lot of immigrant experiences.
Yeah, I hope Namour’s part of a crop of work that I feel is coming up now—I’m thinking of Master of None, I’m thinking of Jane the Virgin—where the person’s national background, or wherever they’re from or their parents are from, is not the essential drama of the story. It’s just a fact. Then we sort of move on with who they are as a person.
You know, Steven was born in this country. I was born in this country. I wanted to convey the idea that, when you’re first generation, it’s not a push and pull. There is this fluidity of life, of experience, that you just occupy. You don’t really question, ‘Am I this or am I that?’ It just is. I tried to show that with how Steven understands what his grandmother says to him in Arabic, but then responds in English.
It’s interesting that you don’t specify, in any part of that film, that the family was from Egypt.
Yes. The dialect will tip you off. I just thought, why? Why does it need to be specified? They move in the world the way most people do.
With regards to Muslim-American or Arab-American depictions on film and TV, it feels like it comes in waves. And usually that has to do with renewed interest because Muslims are in the news. I remember Cherien Dabis’s film Amreeka getting a lot of buzz not too long after 9/11. It seems like there’s now another wave, but we’re seeing Muslims or Arabs being depicted in more quotidian contexts.
When we made the film, I did not anticipate Trump or travel bans or any of those things. I set out to make a film about quotidian life and now it feels like a political film in this climate. It’s strange to me that it is a political film. I was actually talking about this with my husband yesterday—we were watching the Raoul Peck documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin. I was just thinking about what Baldwin had said about images, and how images are political. Maybe the fact that people haven’t seen a film like this, about quotidian life for Arabs and Arab-Americans—that is political. Why haven’t you seen that? Why is it coming now? Why was Cherien the first one, in 2009, to put it out there? So maybe there is something to think about, in terms of the politics of not seeing those images.
Photo by TK Anderson, courtesy of ARRAY.
I read this tweet by this Los Angeles Times journalist Matt Pearce which said, ‘If you don’t think something is political, it’s because you share its politics.’ It is political what movies get made and which ones don’t, but it does get tiring sometimes to have everything you create be politicized in some way.
I think I got a taste of it when I tried to get the funding for the film. Immediately, the story wasn’t politically relevant (to investors). That was insightful for me. I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t even get funding for this story.’ It gave me awareness that the two hardest parts of this process would be funding it and distributing it. And I was right.
In a lot of ways, this film is very much a microportrait of LA. But you’ve been in Philly for 13 years. What made you decide to set the film here?
I haven’t lived there in quite a bit of time, but I feel like the longer you’re away from someplace, the more perspective you have on it. I had been away from LA long enough to feel like I had something to say about it. I understood myself as an American when I lived in Cairo. You start to see what’s ‘American’ about America, or what’s ‘Los Angeles’ about Los Angeles when you’re no longer there.
It’s always when you’re out of context that you can put things in context.