Glass cages & big ideas

Jun 20, 2007 at 12:00 am

Standing in her modest suburban kitchen, a concerned scowl on her face, it's clear that Sami's mother is less than pleased that he's taking a job on the graveyard shift in a Detroit gas station. Actually, she's kind of pissed.

"Why the night shift?" she yells in Arabic. "Why would you do that? It's Detroit."

But Sami needs the job. Not for the money, and not for the employee discounts on car deodorizers. He needs a way to see his girlfriend, Naj. And he needs to do it away from the scrutiny of his strict Lebanese parents.

Then Sami (played by intimidatingly square-jawed local Lamar Babi) enters his workspace, a cocoon of bulletproof glass, cigarettes and cheap Rolex knockoffs where he'll spend the next 12 hours, and where the bulk of the action in filmmaker Rola Nashef's 23-minute short, Detroit Unleaded, takes place.

Sami's cousin and co-worker Mike (Abe Khalil) calls this place, the place where Sami has come for a taste of freedom, "the cage."

"What is the cage?" Sami asks.

"Sami, you're sitting in the cage."

Life behind the glass has fascinated 34-year-old Lebanese-born Nashef since she first moved to the Detroit area from Lansing 12 years ago.

"The whole image of Arab men behind bulletproof glass was always something I felt was so strange," she says. "To me, that bulletproof glass, I think it criminalizes people. It distorts who they are."

Similar to 1994's Clerks, the film is a slice-of-life look at one night toiling in the service industry, but Nashef says it's actually an examination of what she calls "gas station culture." Gas stations, to many of us just a place to fill up and grab a cup of coffee, can be central to the social experience of Arab-Americans in Detroit, she says.

"Owners oftentimes end up working their own shifts, because it's really tough to find people they trust," she says. "What happens is the gas station becomes their life."

It can also be the primary point of contact between largely suburban Arab-Americans and mostly African-American Detroiters, which means interracial camaraderie in some cases and resentment in others. You can see the resentment in a scene where an older, scruffy-looking black man says that he has applied for a job twice at the gas station, and has yet to hear a reply.

"Maybe the application was the wrong color," he says.

The film should be a powerful centerpiece for a discussion of Arab-black relations at the 2007 Allied Media Conference this weekend at Wayne State, the first time that the independent media event comes to Detroit from its home in Bowling Green, Ohio. The conference will bring together more than 150 journalists, independent filmmakers, zinesters, pirate radio aficionados and organizations ranging from Youthville Detroit to Sinn Féin for a weekend of outspokenness, music and even a night of bowling.

The AMC was started in 1999 by Bowling Green State University graduate students and Clamor magazine founders Jen Angel and Jason Kucsma. Now defunct, the magazine's slogan was, "Your DIY guide to everyday revolution."

AMC began as "Zine Conference 1999," a showcase for area zines. The conference attracted a surprising 200 attendees and grew each subsequent year.

Then in 2002, the pair hooked up with Joshua Breitbart, a Brooklyn-based journalist and founder of the Rooftop Film Series, one of the largest small movie series in the country. Breitbart, living in Ann Arbor at the time, Kucsma and Angel formed the nonprofit Allied Media Project, and the conference as it is today was born.

"I just saw it as this incredible opportunity, not just for zine makers, but for the burgeoning microcinema movement ... and also for the indie media movement," Breitbart says. "Jason and Jen and I saw it as a chance for a whole range of different media to come together."

Breitbart says the move to Detroit was inevitable.

"We looked at a couple different options, but Detroit was really the dream," he says. "We have a very strong commitment to the Midwest. There are a lot of people from the region who have been coming to the conference for years, but the energy for it was really in Detroit."

Part of the credit for that energy has to go to local organizers like Mike Medow, 25, and Jenny Lee, 24. Both work for Detroit Summer, a Cass Corridor group that coordinates art projects and neighborhood potlucks for Detroit kids.

Lee and Medow sit on the floor of their plush Cass Corridor apartment on the third floor of a renovated brick mansion. With them are fellow AMC organizer Nadia Abou-Karr, 23, and Mariana Castañeda, 19, also of Detroit Summer and a featured presenter in the opening plenary of the conference. People buzz around the living room, immersed in conversations and projects. Every time you turn around there's someone new walking through one of the doors. There could be 10 people living here. The foursome is unfazed by all the activity as they calmly explain how they helped bring the party to town.

"We made that decision to move the conference here two years ago," Medow says. "So a big part for last year was to bring a lot of people from Detroit to Bowling Green so when it came here, people were familiar with it."

Medow, Lee and the rest of the organizing committee then got down to the real work. Collecting funding from scores of sympathetic organizations, totaling some $70,000 in all, then putting out an open call for presentation ideas and picking the few that would ultimately make it. As of last week, the program was still a work in progress.

They also arranged for cheap places to stay for the 500-800 expected attendees, many of whom will be from out of town. Thanks to the folks at Detroit Summer, the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation at 3535 Cass Ave. will be used as a "crash space" for a mere $15 for the weekend, and Wayne State freed up a block of vacant dorm rooms for $35 per person per night.

"Detroit has a pretty significant legacy of independent media projects," says Lee, mentioning some of the big ones like The Fifth Estate and the 1968 takeover of Wayne State's student paper The South End by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. "The conference has become bigger and more complex. The small town just doesn't fit the conference anymore."

This year's theme is "Breaking Silence, Building Movements." In other words, giving a voice to the traditionally voiceless, and then showing them how to use it.

Take, for example, NO! The Rape Documentary, an examination of sexual assault in the black community. The 94-minute film made over the course of 11 years by director-writer-producer Aishah Shahidah Simmons (herself a survivor of rape and incest) features testimonials from eight rape victims, only one of whom ever reported the incident to the police. NO! explores how the idea of racial solidarity in the black community can sometimes be misused to protect rapists.

But, what happens when economics or a lack of technological savvy gets in the way for would-be directors, writers and producers? The conference will also feature a number of practical workshops such as "Hijacking the Master's Tools," a crash course in online organizing for the poor, and "Sell Without Selling Out," a guide to ethical fundraising.

Over the course of making "Detroit Unleaded," Nashef became something of an expert in creative problem-solving.

It was just before she began her 12-day shoot. She had her funding, her cast, her crew, her location (an abandoned gas station on John R in the Midtown area), but her grocery distributor failed to deliver. She was looking at an empty gas station.

So she did what any self-respecting indie filmmaker would do. She begged. She went to gas stations and asked to borrow groceries to fill the set. She says that once she explained what she was doing, most of the owners were happy to chip in.

"I went to gas stations and said, 'You have to help me. I'm Arab. I'm making a movie about you. You have to help me.'"

Nashef is now in the process of writing a feature-length screenplay of "Detroit Unleaded." She expects to begin production next year.


The Allied Media Conference runs from Friday, June 22, to Sunday, June 24, at the McGregor Conference Center on the campus of Wayne State University. Registration fees are on a voluntary sliding scale from $20 to $100. Find more info at

"Detroit Unleaded" screens Sunday at 10 a.m.

Charles Maldonado is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]