Filmmaker Cherien Dabis on her Arab-American 'identity crisis'
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FRANCE 24 interviews the director of “May in the Summer”, a new film exploring the tensions that arise when an Arab-American Christian returns to her ancestral country of Jordan to marry a Muslim. The film hits theatres on Wednesday.
Born in Nebraska and raised in small-town Ohio by a Palestinian father and Jordanian mother, filmmaker Cherien Dabis is no stranger to the clash of cultures – a theme she has tackled head-on in her work.
Her first film, “Amreeka”, a hit at both Sundance and Cannes in 2009, revolved around a Palestinian immigrant raising her teenage son in Indiana. Dabis’s new movie, “May in the Summer”, reverses the equation: its protagonist, a sophisticated Arab-American New Yorker (played by Dabis herself), travels to her family’s ancestral home in Amman to marry a Muslim, deeply upsetting her devout Christian Jordanian mother (renowned Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass).
Shot in Jordan, where Dabis spent summers as a child, “May in the Summer” unfolds with almost sitcomish breeziness – there’s a cast of colourful supporting characters, jokes about burqa-clad Arab women and vulgar Americans, and lots of snooping, spying and sneaking of cigarettes.
But certain scenes pulse with the feel of lived experience. In an interview with FRANCE 24, Dabis spoke about growing up Arab-American, the impact of that dual identity on her work, and her struggles as an American of Palestinian descent and a bisexual woman from an Arab family.
FRANCE 24: Both of your feature-length films, “Amreeka” and “May in the Summer”, explore Arab-American identity and the tug-of-war between those two influences. Can you talk about your own experience growing up Arab-American in a small Midwestern town?
Cherien Dabis: I grew up in a really small town in Ohio, and as a kid I just wanted to fit in, to be all-American. The town I grew up in was mostly working-class white people of Germanic background, and I didn’t want to be seen as “other”. So I sort of ignored my cultural heritage and ethnicity and operated like I was just like everybody else.
And that worked fine for me until the First Gulf War in 1991. Literally overnight, people turned on us. My dad, who was a doctor, lost a lot of his patients. We got death threats on a daily basis. There were crazy rumours about how my dad’s son was fighting in Saddam Hussein’s army, even though my dad has five daughters and no sons. My mom was called an “Arab bitch”. The secret service came to my high school to investigate a rumour that my sister threatened to kill the president. It was really traumatic. It was at that point that I really became aware of my identity crisis; that’s when I started to feel Arab in America.
F24: Did you have problems after 9/11, too?
CD: Funny enough, by the time 9/11 happened, I was living in New York City. In New York, you can be anybody. It’s so different from a small town, where everyone knows everybody’s business. I overheard some things people said [about Arabs], but no one ever said anything to me directly.
F24: Did your “identity crisis” as an Arab-American play a role in inspiring you to make movies?
CD: Around the time of the First Gulf War, I became obsessed with the media and how the media was perpetuating stereotypes of Arabs. I was directly impacted by what people were buying into from what they saw on TV, in film and on the news. So I became obsessed with wanting to change that.
I grew up surrounded by ignorance. Most people had never left the state of Ohio, whereas I was being shuttled to the Middle East every summer. So I had a different perspective. I would come home to people asking me if they had cars or telephones in Jordan, for example. And I would share video to show them what it looked like. And it went both ways. In the Arab world, people I met had such misconceptions about Americans, and I tried to clear those up. For me, filmmaking came out of that need to help one side understand the other.
F24: What has been your experience as someone of Palestinian origin in a country and industry that are generally considered much more sympathetic to Israel?
CD: That’s actually been an interesting experience, because I’ve seen Americans’ attitudes toward the Palestinian issue shift so dramatically. And I thought I’d never see that shift in my lifetime. When I was growing up, the moment you said you were of Palestinian descent, you were either extremely unpopular or totally politicised and people immediately wanted to know your opinion about what was going on over there. But when I was at Sundance in 2009, it was just days before Obama’s inauguration, and I believe it was the first time ever that a major American news network, CBS, did a piece on what it was like to be Palestinian living under the occupation in the West Bank. It gives me goose bumps just to think about it, because when I was growing up, you would’ve never seen anything on American TV from the point of view of a Palestinian. Since then, there has been a growth of stories of Palestinians in American media and entertainment, and it’s been really exciting to see that and be a part of that shift.
F24: What is your next project? You were a writer on the hit TV series “The L Word” – any plans to return to television?
CD: I’ve got both film and TV projects in development. In terms of movies, “Amreeka” was about being Arab in America, and “May in the Summer” is about being American in the Arab world, so together the two films kind of complete a diptych. So I’ve closed that chapter. Right now, I have an American project, which has nothing to do with the Middle East, and will have big-name actors. It’ll be my first quasi-Hollywood movie, a sort of comedy about death and a love story at the same time. And I have an Arab project, which is Palestine-based and in Arabic.
"May in the Summer" will be released in France on May 7 and in the US on July 11 (limited release).
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