Perseverance could be the mantra of Lebanese-American filmmaker Rola Nashef, who not only overcame typical first-film financing woes, but also a major medical setback to make her debut feature Detroit Unleaded, screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Nashef's optimism and resolve in the face of significant struggle helped the Michigan-raised filmmaker nab TIFF's inaugural Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award, which carries a cash prize of $10,000.

The fledgling prize, awarded Sunday night, pays tribute to a filmmaker in TIFF's Discovery program, which highlights international directors just starting out but who are deemed promising by the festival programmers.

According to organizers, the new award was "designed to celebrate the human story behind first-feature filmmaking, spotlighting the incredible passion and dedication required to ultimately get one's film made."

Nashef's "slice-of-life romantic dramedy," about a young Arab-American man forced to take on his family's gas station after his father is killed, was a triumph for the young director that was nearly a decade in the making.

'It's the essence of a true filmmaker: How far would you go to tell your story?' —Ruba Nadda

"We were looking for passion, dedication, perseverance, talent and vision — and that's what we found in Rola," Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda, one of the three members on the award's jury, told CBC News.

"When I read her story, I was crying," Nadda admitted. "For me, it's the essence of a true filmmaker: How far would you go to tell your story?"

After years of switching college majors and unable to find a career she loved, Nashef says, she ultimately crossed paths with a filmmaker and decided to apply to film school.


Detroit filmmaker Rola Nashef won the inaugural TIFF Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award, which carries a $10,000 prize. (Jessica Wong/CBC)

"The first day on set, I knew right away this was it," she recalled shortly after the Discovery Award ceremony.

"As soon as I found it, I never looked back."

Detroit Unleaded first emerged as a 20-minute short she released in 2007, after which it travelled to 26 film festivals and won three awards. When she saw how the tale of second-generation Arab-Americans resonated with audiences, she knew she had a feature on her hands.

Raising the necessary budget, however, seemed insurmountable until Nashef decided to tap into her past experience working in the non-profit sector and use grassroots efforts to get her film made.

In addition to enlisting an experienced crew willing to work within her meagre budget, Nashef got creative, partnering with cooking schools for craft services, casting locals and hiring art school interns for her art department staff.

She even knocked on the doors of as many gas stations as possible to solicit donations for the set.

"Can you donate a bunch of hats for our set? Can you donate a bunch of Slim Jims for our set?" she recalled asking gas station owners.

"I remember we had to keep track of everything we borrowed to give back to all the stores."

Medical emergency

A potential disaster struck about a week before shooting was set to begin, when Nashef lost the ability to walk. An unexpected injury to her sciatic nerve required emergency back surgery — and a delay to filming. When she objected to her doctor, he informed her she could lose her leg if she delayed medical treatment.

Nashef underwent the surgery, but rallied to start her film shoot just two weeks later than scheduled.

"You just have to have so much trust and faith in the greater synergetic energy, this power, in pulling a film together. When you begin to partner up with people, something happens," she said.

"When people come together and you put enough energy in, you put enough work into it, it gives you something back. I 100 per cent believe that."

Now, after being accepted into TIFF and winning the Discovery Award, Nashef is over the moon.

"People can love your film, but they really don't know what it took to get it there," she said.

"So to be recognized for the journey that it took to get it up on the screen is so incredible."

The Toronto International Film Festival continues through Sunday.