Directed By-Weam Namou
Special Jury Award- Best Debut Film Maker
Country of Origin- United States
1. Hello, Weam Namou! First, we are grateful that you have chosen our festival. Congratulations on your project The Great American Family, which has get Special Jury Award, Category Best Debut Film Maker from IIFF. We are delighted to see your picture. Can you tell us more about this project?
Weam Namou: Thank you for this award, I’m honored!
I began working on The Great American Family in 2010 after a family approached me to write
about their daughter, Dawn Hanna. At the time, Dawn was serving a six-year term in federal
prison, accused of having conspired to sell telecom equipment to Iraq during the sanctions.
After her sentencing, two CIA operatives came forward to exonerate her name. They stated in a
sworn affidavit that, unbeknownst to Dawn, this was a secret US sponsored operation intended
to listen in on Saddam Hussein and his men. The Court knew this information but had not
revealed it to the Defense. So Dawn never received a fair trial.
2. You are an Eric Hoffer award-winning author of 15 books, a speaker, a journalist, and a filmmaker. How was your journey?
Weam Namou: I grew up as a minority Christian in a Muslim country. In the United States, I was again a minority
as a Middle Easterner. I often joke that I’m an expert at being a minority. I was fortunate to
come to the United States at an early age and be given the opportunities that I would not have
had in my birth country. Still, I had a lot of challenges trying to break into the book and film
industry because my stories did not fit into popular narratives. The same institutions that
claimed they want “diverse and unique voices” have their own version of diversity and
The other problem I faced was that, despite the large population of Arab and Chaldean Americans
(roughly 3.7 million), our community does not provide a strong vehicle to develop and encourage
the arts. Having come from war-torn lands where creativity is oppressed and, in some cases, even
outlawed, our communities often operate in a defensive survival mode. There are also issues
related to women which the community does not want to address.
Despite all that, I found my way through my faith and by staying focused on my goals. I also had
a lot of people who cheered me on, encouraged me to keep believing in myself. This helped me
persist and push forward.
3. In your project, we saw Dawn Hanna’s story. How did you choose this concept & why?
Weam Namou: Originally, I did not want to take on this project because it was too political. I was tired of the
politics associated with Iraq, the wars, the sanctions, the suffering caused as a result. At the
same time, the case distressed me. I was born in Baghdad, Iraq to an ancient indigenous group
known as the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonians who still speak Aramaic). My family and I fled Iraq’s
totalitarian regime to find freedom in the United States. Yet here I was confronted with a story
that resembled the very things we tried to escape from. As an Iraqi American journalist, writer,
and filmmaker, I felt it was my responsibility to tell this story. I had the perfect background to
tell it. I also got close to Dawn’s mother, Linda, and saw the horrors the prison system creates
for families who have women inmates incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. As a mother myself, I
simply could not turn away from it.
4. Was there any problem when you launched the project publicly to get justice for Dawn Hanna?
Weam Namou: I ended up writing a book and producing and directing a documentary, both titled The Great
American Family. The book won an Eric Hoffer award, and the feature documentary has won
numerous international awards. The works were received well by the book and film industry.
But of course, when you’re addressing controversial issues, there are always people who feel
uncomfortable about the topic and try to make you uncomfortable as well. They assume that
criticizing the US Justice system is unpatriotic. But the opposite is true. I spent six years writing
the book and eight years working on the documentary. Aside from the time and energy I
invested into these projects, I invested my own funds too. I could not have done that if not for
my love for my country. I don’t ever want Americans to go through what my family went through
in Iraq, where we lose the freedoms we came here for.
5. How many projects have you undertaken so far?
Weam Namou: The Great American Family is my first feature documentary film. The second film I made was
Pomegranate, is a feature narrative about a Muslim refugee in America who is trying to find her
way in a community with a large population of Chaldeans (Christian Iraqis). Post-production was
recently completed for Pomegranate, and it is currently touring film festivals. The script was
selected quarterfinalist by Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope. Then it gained the interest of Buffalo 8
Productions in Santa Monica, California, and Hollywood producer Scott Rosenfelt. I decided to
also write a book about this story, with the same title. I simply love writing books!
6. Tell us about your director’s statement?
Weam Namou: The voices of Americans of Middle Easterner background, particularly women, are quite
underrepresented. The book and film industry has divided this community into two types – the
victims or villains, dehumanizing that entire population. Our children rarely get a chance to view
a version of themselves that’s relatable and inspirational, rather than pigeonholed.
For that reason, I am committed to writing and producing stories that are gained from personal
experience and be authentic to the people and culture I am a part of.
7. What is your message in this project?
Weam Namou: The Dawn Hanna case touches on a number of important issues that are robbing American
family from living the American dream: a criminal justice system that is based on greed and
profit; big lies that lead to wars, sanctions, terrorism, and other costly consequences; a
democracy that is based on double standards.
8. Can you tell us more about your future plans regarding your next project?
Weam Namou: I recently published a book titled Little Baghdad: A Memoir About Endangered People in an American City. The book explores the Chaldeans who have survived decades of oppression and genocide in their homeland to find a sacred home in an
American city nicknamed “Little Baghdad.”
I want to follow up the book with a documentary that I began in 2007 when I
interviewed my mother, sisters, nieces, cousins, and extended relatives about how it feels,
as women, to live tribally in a democracy. They shared their perspectives on how, despite
their assimilation to the Western lifestyle, they continue to be connected to instinctual
tribal ways that most people repress in civilized life. They embody an East-West wisdom
that we are all in need of today.
Little Baghdad is a loving, historical, and personal account of a people who fled their
ancestral home, Mesopotamia, “the cradle of civilization,” where writing, the wheel, and
the first cities developed in the south of Iraq around 3500 B.C. For the next 3,000 years,
kingdoms rose and fell, empires expanded and contracted, and outsiders conquered and were
repelled. In the process, the people who have in the past made tremendous contributions
to our civilization have greatly diminished in Iraq due to continuous cycles of wars and
genocide. They are currently at risk of being close to extinction.