Cherien Dabis is a live wire. The 33-year-old Arab-American has made quite an impact with her debut feature, Amreeka (Arabic for America) which premiered last year in Sundance, and took out the Director's Fortnight critics prize in Cannes.

Born of a Jordanian mother and Palestinian father, Dabis draws on her upbringing in Ohio where she experienced the sudden shift in how she and her family were treated during the Gulf War.

She was living in New York by the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"History was repeating itself and I was hearing more and more stories like mine of Middle Easterners being scapegoated," she says. "It made me realise it was time to sit down and start writing."

While she chose to set her story around 9/11, Amreeka is not a political film. It is a celebration of life and of the cultural differences that can as easily bring people together as tear them apart.

"The film is loosely based on the experiences of my family in a small Ohio town," she says. "We went back to Jordan every summer, so I was shuffled between these two very different places, the Midwest and Middle East, and my father was a doctor much like the character in the film."

Until the Gulf War broke out her father had been a kind of town hero but literally overnight became the enemy. Dabis was 14 at the time.

"It was shocking to see people turn on us and my father lost a lot of his patients as people didn't want to see an Arab doctor. We got death threats and my parents were looking into moving and they even talked about getting a gun. Of course they never did, but it got so bad that the Secret Service came to my high school investigating a rumour that my 17 year-old sister had threatened to kill the President. The principal wouldn't let them anywhere near her, which is where the idea for the nice principal came from."

Inevitably Dabis grew up quickly. "Prior to that point I wanted to be an all American kid, I just wanted to fit in. I kind of had an identity crisis and it took me a long time to learn to appreciate that I'm neither American nor Arab fully - that I'm a bit of both."

Her parents have since separated with her father remaining in Ohio while her mother returned to Jordan. This fed into her Amreeka story of a divorced mother who moves to America with her teenage son. Still, what makes this fish-out-of water story irresistible is Nisreen Faour's performance as Muna, a Palestinian mother who perseveres with a positive attitude, no matter what. A lot of the film's gentle humour, which Dabis says comes from her own family's linguistic confusion, arises from Muna. One of the film's funniest scenes is when she stands at the American customs counter.

"Citizenship?"

"We don't have."

"As in you don't have a country?"

"That's right."

"Where are you from, Israel?"

"The Palestinian territory."

"Occupation?

"Yes, it is occupied for 40 years."

"Muna is based on my aunt, but I've known many Arab women like that - charming, sweet, innocent and pure. Pure in the way that they believe that people are good and honest and they're honest to a fault. They're full of hope and optimism in the face of great challenges."

In America Muna and her son stay with her Ohio-based sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass from The Visitor and Lemon Tree), who is married to a doctor and they have three kids. After the 9/11 attacks the family experiences great hardship. The unflappable Muna, though, saves the day.

"I'm a pretty hopeful person," Dabis admits. "I tend to gravitate towards stories that have hope and humour because we need that. It's a survival mechanism. Without hope I don't know where we would be right now."

LOWDOWN
Who: Cherien Dabis, Arab-American director
What: Her film Amreeka
When and where: Opens at cinemas on Thursday