Hamptons Film Fest Selection ‘Amira & Sam’ Challenges Preconceptions

Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi in "Amira & Sam."
Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi in "Amira & Sam."

Amira & Sam, which had its East Coast premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October, is an independent and unconventional romantic comedy set against the backdrop of post-9/11 society and Wall Street greed.

Taking place in 2007—at the height of conflict in Iraq and on the cusp of the financial crisis—the story centers on a American veteran, Sam, played by Martin Starr of Freaks and Geeks and Silicon Valley fame, and an Iraqi refugee, Amira, portrayed by newcomer Dina Shihabi.

Sam was recently discharged and is struggling to settle back into civilian life. He does not suffer from PTSD, but he does find it difficult to fit in with New Yorkers who can only pretend to know what being deployed like. He refuses handouts, and aspires to be a stand-up comedian. Meanwhile, Amira is staying in Brooklyn with her uncle, Bassam [Laith Nakli], who was Sam’s translator during his tour in Iraq. When Sam reunites with Bassam, he meets Amira, who has no interest in meeting him. She isn’t a fan of the U.S. military–her brother was also a translator, and he was killed in friendly fire. And having a family member who helped the Americans has put a target on her back.

Though Sam and Amira’s relationship starts with acrimony, it evolves and romance flourishes. However, others they confront can’t see passed stereotypes. During an interview at the festival, director Sean Mullin explains the film is about challenging preconceptions.

In writing the script, Mullin applied a lesson from the Columbia School graduate film program: “The most important thing about a film is that you have to have a personal connection to the material as the director, or it’s not going to work.”

He certainly has a connection.

Mullin is a West Point graduate who served in the military between 1997 and 2002. As a member of the New York Army National Guard, he was a first responder to the World Trade Center on 9/11.

After 9/11, he spent his days at Ground Zero as a captain-in-charge for a year. His nights were spent as a stand-up comedian, and that’s when he rubbed elbows with Wall Street guys. When he completed his time in the military, he enrolled at Columbia University in Manhattan to pursue film, then relocated to Los Angeles and worked as a writer.

Having written for other directors, Mullin knew he wanted to write a feature film of his own that he could direct himself. And, as an independent filmmaker, he knew, “You need to write a script that is producible.”

“What’s the cheapest kind of film you can make?” he asked. “A love story.”

He penned a screenplay that could fit under the Screen Actors Guild modified low budget guidelines, which caps total production cost at $625,000.

There are no expensive special effects or car chases in Amira & Sam. The story is dialogue driven, and many scenes include just the two leads.

“There’s a long, 7-minute take of the two of them just talking, which is kind of heart of the movie,” Mullin notes.

Though many scenes were small, and not costly to make, Mullin says he wanted to punctuate those with bigger scenes, including a boat trip, a motorcycle ride, and a party scene with many extras.

"Amira and Sam" director and screenwriter Sean Mullin with Dina Shihabi, the actress who plays Amira, on October 12 in East Hampton at the Hamptons International Film Festival.
Director Sean Mullin with actress Dina Shihabi on October 12 in East Hampton at the Hamptons International Film Festival.
Photo credit: Brendan J. O’Reilly

In casting his leads, Mullin wanted an actor for Sam who could be both witty and stoic—he gave Sam the last name Seneca, after the Roman Stoic philosopher. Admiring Starr’s work in the Starz television series Party Down, Mullin knew he had his guy.

Dina Shihabi, an up-and-coming actress, learned of the role of Amira simultaneously from her manager and from her friend Nakli, who both told her she would be perfect for it.

“I read the script and said, whatever I do, I have to do this,” Shihabi says.

Shihabi was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Dubai, so she speaks Arab fluently, and she worked with Nakli to learn their characters’ correct Iraqi dialect.

The film also stars Paul Wesley, of The Vampire Diaries, as Sam’s cousin, a hedge fund manager who wants to exploit Sam’s status as a veteran, while convincing both Sam and himself that he has Sam’s best interests in mind.

The film is already receiving praise and accolades. At the Napa Valley Film Festival, it won both the jury award and audience award for Best Narrative Feature Film.

Amira & Sam will come to select theaters and video-on-demand January 30, 2015

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