Director Stephen Dunn on the Canadian connection to the queer refugee story in Little America

Dunn talks about his episode of Little America, a new Apple TV Plus series that's inspired by eight separate stories of real immigrants and refugees living in the U.S.
Canadian writer and director Stephen Dunn on the set of The Son, the final episode in the anthology series Little America. (Apple TV Plus)

The new Apple TV Plus series Little America is inspired by eight separate stories of real immigrants and refugees living in the U.S. The final episode of the anthology series is called The Son, and it's based on the story of Shadi Ismail, a Syrian man who was viciously attacked and threatened with death by his own father for being gay.

In the episode, two gay men, Zain and Rafiq, find themselves in a place where their whole existence is taboo, not to mention illegal. They both end up in the U.S. where they hope to find the freedom to finally be themselves. It's a tender story about queer people finding community, but there's an irony in all of this: the episode was almost never made because of U.S. President Donald Trump's travel ban, also known as the Muslim ban.

The actor hired to play Zain, Adam Ali, who is a U.K. citizen, wasn't allowed to travel to New Jersey for the shoot because he was born in Libya, according to director and co-writer Stephen Dunn.

"It was horrifying," he says. "Here we are, trying to tell the story about a real Syrian refugee who sought asylum in the United States 10 years ago, and in 2019, we can't even tell the story within the country that he actually sought asylum in. There's just such a tragic irony to this."

But as it turns out, Dunn had a solution. 

"We were ready to rebuild Syria and Jordan and Boise, Idaho in New Jersey, and then I made a pitch to Apple," he says. "What if we shot in Canada? They did it and we moved our entire production, so every day of this was shot in Canada, in Montreal, where there is such a vibrant Arab community and a Syrian community, specifically, that it was incredibly possible to do it there. We had everything we wanted to be able to tell this story."

Dunn joined q guest host Laurie Brown on the line from Los Angeles to talk more about how the travel ban affected production, the importance of showing the "warmth of the Middle East," and why he thinks the episode's story has a universal narrative.

Little America is available on Apple TV Plus. Dunn's next big project is a reboot of the television series Queer as Folk.

Download our podcast or click the 'Listen' link near the top of this page to hear the full conversation with Stephen Dunn.

— Produced by ​Jennifer Warren

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