Canadian directors humanize immigrant experience in Apple TV’s ‘Little America’

TORONTO — It’s called Little America, but it has some big Canadian connections.

The new Apple TV Plus anthology series, based on true stories of immigrants in America, has two Canadian directors on two different episodes, one of which was also shot in Montreal.

Oscar-nominated Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta helmed the first episode, The Manager, about a young spelling bee champion who runs his family’s Utah motel when his parents are deported back to India.

And Toronto filmmaker Stephen Dunn directed the eighth episode, The Son, about a gay man who flees his disapproving family in Syria and bides his time in Jordan while awaiting asylum in the United States.

“It’s a sensitive series,” Mehta said in a recent phone interview from Madrid, where she’s editing her upcoming film, Funny boy, based on a book by Shyam Selvadurai.

“As an immigrant to Canada — and now I’m a Canadian citizen — I’m really tired of the ‘poor immigrants who come in’ story: Stories of strife, the stories of how to get over the strife. There seem to be just two stories for immigrants, there’s no human face to them. So suddenly the idea of getting a human face was really interesting.”

Little America is inspired by real stories featured in Epic Magazine.

Executive producers include Oscar-nominated The Big Sick writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and six-time Emmy nominee Lee Eisenberg, who is also the showrunner.

“These are often narratives that are never the centre of the story, characters that are never usually the protagonist in Hollywood filmmaking,” said Dunn, who was born in St. John’s and wrote and directed 2015’s Closet Monster, which won the best Canadian feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“And what I loved is there’s such diversity and such a celebration of culture in this show.”

Mehta said she was drawn to the team behind the series and “fell in love” with The Manager script by playwright Rajiv Joseph, who was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

She spoke by phone with the real-life protagonist who inspired the episode, Kunal Sah, as well as his parents, and shot the episode in a New Jersey motel run by a Pakistani-American family.

Mehta feels it’s an important series at a time of political tensions over U.S. immigration policies.

“More than any other time I think that the series would be relevant, because it’s humanistic,” said Mehta, who grew up in New Delhi and wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated Water.

“Toni Morrison said that all art is political, and she’s absolutely right on. Because there is a very solid, political, not in-your-face kind of thing about the series, but definitely the foundation is political.”

American immigration policies had a direct impact on production of The Son episode, which is written by Dunn and Amrou Al-Kadhi.

Dunn, who currently splits his time between Toronto and L.A., said they were supposed to shoot the episode in the U.S.

But they had to move production to Montreal with a mostly Canadian crew because of a travel ban that restricted actor Adam Ali — a Libyan-born, U.K. citizen — from shooting in the U.S.

Ali was also recently refused entry in the U.S. while trying to fly from the U.K. for the series premiere in L.A.

Dunn said both he and Al-Kadhi felt connected to the material, which is inspired by the true story of Shadi Ismail, who now lives in Boise, Idaho.

He said Al-Kadhi related to the material as a queer, non-binary, Iraqi-born, Muslim drag queen who’s based out of the U.K.

And like the protagonist, Dunn said he was also kicked out of his home and has since spent much of his life “rebuilding a sense of community and a sense of family or home or self-esteem.”

“I think as a queer person facing that kind of rejection from your own home, you take so much of it personally. You feel like there must be something wrong with you,” Dunn said, noting Closet Monster — about a closeted gay teenager dealing with internalized homophobia — is a personal film with fictional elements.

“I always internalize that or fear rejection and blame myself. But I realize now, after growing up and being able to share stories like the stories that I’ve been a part of, that what happened to me is not my fault — just as what happened to Shadi is not his fault.

“We have faced rejection from our families because of a lot of factors, such as a larger belief system and systemic abuse towards our community, that has nothing to do with us as individuals. We’ve had to fight so hard to make space for ourselves and to build our own communities, and … Shadi specifically has had to leave the country to do that. And I think for me, I saw so much hope in the story and so much inspiration.”

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