LEILA’S GIFT tells a story of identity and home that is easily relatable, through a culture that isn’t often seen in mainstream entertainment. At a time when xenophobia and prejudiced rhetoric is dividing us, this is a story of family and love that can bring people together.
Inclusion StatementWe have put together a diverse, female-led team to tell this story of an Arab American woman, from our Iranian American director, Mithra B. Alavi, our Palestinian American Lead Actress, Zein Khleif, our Asian American cinematographer, Erica Chan, and our American producer, Kathleen Peiris.
About The Project
Director's Statement: Mithra B. Alavi
Arab American, LEILA (20), has spent the last year attending college in Amman, Jordan and living with her father and grandmother. Now it’s summer vacation and she travels to Los Angeles to spend it with her American mother, KAREN (46). When Leila arrives, Karen sees her daughter wearing hijab for the first time. Leila reveals to Karen that she has embraced her Islamic heritage and has decided to live in Amman permanently. This worries Karen, who raised her daughter as a single mother in the United States and fears losing her to a culture of which she never felt part. Now daughter and mother must navigate this new aspect of their relationship. But no matter what life throws at them, nothing is stronger than family.
Growing up in the bible belt of North East Tennessee proved interesting as a half-Iranian, Shia Muslim. People were often curious about my name, my travels back to Iran, and my religion. After the tragedy of 9/11, that curiosity turned to fear, hatred, and prejudice. I found myself in a position I never asked for: ambassador of all things Iran and Islam. Quite a tall order. After years of fighting this job that was imposed on me, I have found a way to embrace it with my writing and directing.
I have had an on again, off again relationship with Islam. From the time I was thirteen to the time I was twenty, I fasted and prayed during Ramadan while at the same time learning to date, drink moonshine, and discovering my identity as woman and passionate creator. That is why when Zein and Kathleen first approached me with the concept of a short film about a young Jordanian American woman who, after being raised in the United States, decides to embrace her father’s Islamic faith, I was immediately onboard.
As a young woman living abroad and going to university in Amman, Leila is being thrown into a world which is familiar and a part of her, but very different from her American upbringing. The end of teenage years and the entrance into young adulthood is a daunting transition for anyone. It is a time when you are really figuring out who you are and asserting your own identity. That experience is unique when you are straddling two very different cultures and trying to find your place in each of them. Navigating that dichotomy of cultures is something I can greatly relate to in Leila’s story.
The easy story to tell is one of a young Jordanian American woman, raised Muslim, who decides that she is going to walk away from a culture and religion that many see as oppressive to women. But the truth is, this is a culture full of warmth and love that puts a great emphasis on home and family. That is what Leila finds when she moves to Amman and that is why she has found a home there. However, back in the U.S. is Karen, who raised Leila as a single mother and has felt lonely and lost since her daughter has been gone. In many ways, Karen’s sense of home is having her daughter with her. That makes it particularly heartbreaking for her when Leila reveals that she does not plan on returning to Los Angeles after graduation.
This story of identity and home is a universal one that an audience can easily relate to with a culture that isn’t seen in mainstream entertainment. This is a story that is needed today at a time where mass social media is making the world more connected and yet, xenophobia and prejudiced filled rhetoric is constantly dividing us. This is the perfect example of how storytelling and filmmaking can bring people of different backgrounds together.
Use the WishList to pledge cash and loan items - or - Make a pledge by selecting an incentive directly.
About This Team
MITHRA B. ALAVI
With Farsi as her first language, born in the foothills of the Tennessee Appalachia, and bellydancing from the time she could stand, Mithra B. Alavi, is just your average Iranian-Southern-American Girl. After realizing she wasn’t that good of an actress, she attended Florida State University where she earned her MFA in Directing from the College of Motion Picture Arts. As a writer and director, she aims to create relatable characters with diverse stories to increase representation on the big and small screen. Having been raised in two very different worlds, she was drawn to this project as a way to explore the difficult questions of identity, home, and family. And at the end of the day whatever country, faith, family; love can always be found. Her previous works include “Three’s a Crowd” and “Fathers & Daughters.”
Since she can remember, film has been sacred territory for Kathleen, allowing her to experience the world beyond her Midwestern upbringing. Determined to become a producer whose films focus on global interconnectedness, Kathleen moved to Jordan while in college to work at the Royal Film Commission. This time spent in the Middle East was deeply impactful for her personally and professionally, and she is thrilled to be bringing this particular story to life with such a passionate team. Kathleen recently produced two feature documentaries, and she is the U.S. Office Director for Desert Motion Pictures, a Jordan-based production services company. She is married to a wonderful physician from Sri Lanka, another incredible place where she hopes to make a film one day.
Zein is a Palestinian-American actress, singer, writer, and producer. She graduated from Brown University with a BA in Political Psychology before moving to Los Angeles in pursuit of a storytelling career. Zein aims to take part in, and create, art that is powerful and transcends the stereotypes society has put on her Arab culture. Her goal is to humanize people of the Middle East - in all their races, religions, and ethnicities - and generate written and visual media highlighting the complexities of the region. She is dedicated to accurately representing the nuances of culture, and she advocates for diversity and equal representation both on screen and behind the camera.
Director of Photography
Erica Chan is an Asian-American filmmaker who grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada. She pursued her Master's degree at Florida State University. This was where she was able to augment her abilities as a collaborator, cultivate her cravings to play with light, and pushed her potential as a storyteller. As an Asian-American growing up in the United States, Erica connects with this specific story because she understands what it means to search for your own identity in a world that does not always accept your own unique qualities.
Madison Horton is a film producer from Atlanta, Georgia. Although her main focus is on documentary films, she is passionate about telling stories of global interconnectedness in any format. Now based in Los Angeles, Madison recently associate produced the feature documentary “Red Penguins” written and directed by Gabe Polksy. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan with degrees in History and Evolutionary Biology, and could not be more excited to be a part of the Leila’s Gift team.
As one of the few female composers of Arab heritage, Ghiya takes pride in shattering stereotypes about women in film music, and about Middle Eastern women in general. Ghiya is a Sundance Fellow, having been selected as one composer of 800 applicants for the year of 2019 and was mentored by a big number of major A-list Hollywood composers as Christopher Lennertz, Christopher Young and Timothy Wynn. She was awarded the prestigious BMI Foundation Pete Carpenter Fellowship in 2017 for her piece Fly and Flow that was recorded by a 70-piece orchestra in Budapest. She also counts among her honors the Global Music Awards Silver Medal for outstanding achievement in film and TV scoring, and was a jury member of Le Petit Cannes Film Festival 2018.