Stephen Dunn on set of ‘Little America’After years of laboring directing and writing short films, Stephen Dunn’s debut feature Closet Monster premiered in 2015, earning him notice for its story of a small town gay teen yearning for a better life. The film helped Dunn land the job of rebooting Queer as Folk for Peacock. With the show in development, Dunn also took on directorial duties for the new immigration-themed Apple+ series Little America.
As an anthology series, Little America focuses on the stories of real-life immigrants, dramatizing their process of coming to the United States in each episode. Dunn’s episode, The Son, focuses on a closeted gay man in Syria who learns to embrace his sexuality. To save his own life, he must find a way to the US.
Little America lands on Apple+ January 17.
We chatted with an emotional Dunn just prior to the episode’s release.
So how did you land this gig?
It’s kind of an unusual process. I’m developing the Queer as Folk reboot with Lee Eisenberg. He was talking about Little America, and said he really wanted to do a queer episode. He said they had this interview with Shadi [the real life Rafiq]. He sent it to me, and I thought it was such a beautiful, complex story—very different from the others. It had such a complex perspective on being queer. I shared the story with my good friend Amrou Al-Kadhi.
Amrou the writer?
I’ve known Amrou for years. I talked to Amrou and we decided to work on it. It kind of just happened organically.
Now, you’re Canadian. Because this film is set almost exclusively in Syria, what kind of research did you do to prepare?
For us, this story was pretty personal. Amrou is a queer, non-binary Arab refugee from Iraq. They lives in the UK. For me, I was kicked out of my house when I was 16. I think what we really connected with in this story, coming from different backgrounds—so much of our lives have been about building a sense of community and family and home. Ultimately, Rafiq’s journey is a pretty universal queer narrative. I do this in all my work: if you’re working on topics that are not exactly you, it’s necessary to work within a community that you’re writing about in order to do so with authenticity and respect.
This episode almost never happened.
It was important for me to employ queer, Arab actors, writers, consultants and others from the community. I wanted to cast queer, Arabian actors for these roles. We found over and over while we were in the audition process that we were not able to legally bring folks into the country. We were casting internationally, and we found Adam Ali [who plays the effeminate Zain], who is Libyan born and lives in Manchester [UK]. Because of that passport, he wasn’t able to enter the country. We were supposed to shoot in New Jersey. And I was devastated.
I remember seeing his audition tape, and I’d never seen anything quite as powerful. He included a little personal relationship to the script, and how he related to it. We were getting to know him through the audition tape, which is pretty unusual. And we were all floored when we couldn’t bring him in because of the Trump travel ban.
It was devastating. I’m a white, terrible Catholic, Canadian kid aware of what’s going on in the world. I’m very politically engaged. But to see something in the news happen before our eyes… The whole reason we’re making this show about a queer Muslim man who entered this country 10 years ago seeking asylum [for his safety]. If he applied to enter the country right now, he wouldn’t be able to. To see us telling a story about this was so upsetting for everyone.
I made a plea to the producers and our studio to move production to Canada. And they agreed.
It was very hard. I know they had to adjust a lot to do this, but everyone believed in the story. Apple was such a huge champion of this project. Even though these are intimate stories, they have potential to have such an impact. So we moved everything to Canada and shot in Montreal, which has a vibrant Arab community. We hired consultants, and were able to cast any way we wanted. I was floored.
I couldn’t believe it. This is my first TV experience. There was such humanity in that decision.
Well going off that—that story personalizes the whole idea of the Trump travel ban. It’s something very abstract to a lot of people who think this doesn’t affect me. But some of these people—their lives depend on finding asylum.
And there are so many people like Rafiq. There are organizations like Rainbow Railroad, which is an asylum organization that helps queer folks abroad. I know so many people care about others in the queer community all over the world. So to tell a story like this which is so hopeful—it was so difficult to see the limitations which we had in just telling this story that was no longer possible.
Now were you in touch with the real Rafiq/Shadi?
Yeah. We conducted interviews to help fill in the gaps in the narrative. We actually just shared the final episode with Shadi. His reaction to the episode was enough for me to feel like the work we did was worthwhile. It meant a lot to him to be the representation that he needed. I don’t want to speak for him, but this is why we need these stories.
Did he advise you on maintaining the verisimilitude of the story?
Not for production. We had a lot of consultants—dialogue consultants, coaches. You do the best you can to tell a story in a controlled environment. For me, it’s always been about bringing many voices to the story you’re trying to tell. I’m really excited about the number of people who worked on this. I’ve never worked on something so big. We weren’t going to be in Syria speaking English. The family speaks Arabic [in the show]. These were decisions that were important to us, and that came from the top down.
What was the biggest surprise to you in researching Syrian culture?
I remember something when we started writing together, Amrou said something that had a really profound effect on the whole production. There’s one scene where Rafiq is laying in bed with Christopher, and he’s explaining why his father burned him. In a way, he’s apologizing for his abuser. But he explains how in his culture, being gay doesn’t just send you to hell, it damns your mother too. That is believed to be true for some people. While it’s obviously harmful, understanding where this aspect of this story comes from—we need to understand homophobia both to move past it and to make sure the same people do no carry the same story through their coming of age. It needed to be understood that this is not Rafiq’s fault.
Beyond the violence, there is still love. When I was kicked out of my house as a teenager, I had a very similar experience to this story. I know that this act of violence in a dark and unhealthy way came from an act of protection. It came from love. It’s very hard, and it takes a lot of work to see that and to understand it. The only way to survive is to forgive. That was something so integral to this story.
In stories like these, I think it’s very easy to fall into anti-Islamic trappings—demonizing the religion in other words. I don’t think Islam is ever mentioned at all. You make clear that this is a cultural attitude, but you don’t attack Islam without letting the faith off the hook. Was that a conscious choice?
It was a huge part of this. I think it’s too easy to see violence turning barbaric. For us, we wanted to represent the perspective of you could just write off an entire culture you don’t understand, or you could lean in and listen and be able to understand why this exists. There is a powerful reason. For us, I think Amrou and I both knew this was how the story had to be. We didn’t want to let this go without being clear about how detrimental this kind of act can be, but we also wanted to understand. The only way to have a discussion and make progress in the world [is to listen].
It’s also interesting to me that Zain is really the target of the most overt homophobia because he’s more effeminate. That’s something that recurs across cultures. It’s true in the US, in Russia, in Africa. What’s the fear of male effeminacy your opinion?
Both Amrou and I represent ourselves as femme. Amrou is non-binary. I use he and they/them pronouns. I respond to either. But for us, unfortunately, femme presenting folks have always been objects of violence and homophobia throughout history. Zain is younger than Rafiq in the story, but is light years beyond in terms of self-actualization. Adam put a lot of himself into that role, as with any cinematic story. Specifically with Haaz and Adam we started having conversations pretty early. I don’t want to speak for Adam, but he took on the presentation of Zain’s femininity. I know how proud he is of this project. Both Adam and Amrou felt they’d never seen themselves on television before. Theirs is a level of queerness that was not acceptable. This is going to be a first for a lot of people.
[He becomes audibly emotional]
To be part of something like that is shocking. To see how deeply important a project can be. Every one of us who worked on this project, to understand the power of what you’re doing changes your relationship to it. It becomes purpose. I’m very grateful for this experience.
You mention how emotional it was for you to do this project, and how you relate to Rafiq because you were also kicked out of your house. In reflecting on Rafiq’s story, and on your own, what insight did that give you, what ability did that give you to forgive what has been done to you? And to others?
When you’re traumatized as a child, when you’re hurt by a parent, you can go a very long time feeling like it’s your fault. I hadn’t seen my dad in almost 14 years.
But slightly after working on this project, I serendipitously came face to face with him. I have an uncle that came out, and I took him to Pride in our town. My dad showed up to the Pride parade.
At the end of our episode, there’s a scene where Rafiq writes a letter to his father about what he’s done. And he says “Dad, I’m OK. I hope you are too.” It’s almost the opening of a door. It’s not a clean-cut tied up ending. For me, the hope comes from forgiveness. The journey of healing involves forgiveness. I have to forgive my own oppressors for what they’ve done. I don’t need to tell them that, or do more work than I should. But the act of having compassion and understanding where that may have come from, it helps you forgive yourself.
Forgive yourself for what?
For being so hard and blaming what has been done to you on yourself. For telling yourself you’re not good enough. I’ll probably not ever get closure in my life. A lot of people don’t get that closure. For me, in my own journey, being able to forgive my own father for not being the dad I need him to be essentially made me realize I need to be that father, that person.
I think a lot of LGBTQ people relate to that.
Queer people don’t grow up as themselves. We grow up being a version of ourselves to survive. The journey to that recovery is realizing you have to take care of yourself, and you have to re-parent the child [inside yourself] that is still hurting. So much of Rafiq’s journey, and my journey, is about building family. Queer family is a real thing. We may not all have the luxury of having that kind of security, but it doesn’t mean we are alone. I’m grateful for the resilience I’ve gained from it.
Resilience leads to a better version of yourself.
“The Son” is the fifth episode of Little America. It arrives on Apple + January 17.