Following her noted 2010 debut Amreeka, Cherien Dabis swaps small-town USA for Jordan as a New Yorker returns to her native home in the run-up to her wedding.
The Palestinian-American filmmaker talks to Jeremy Kay about growing up an outsider, why jogging can be a provocative act and what it was like to put herself in front of the camera.
May In The Summer premiered at Sundance 2013 and opens though Cohen Media Group in late August. Dabis stars alongside Hiam Abbass, Bill Pullman, Alia Shawcat, Nadine Malouf and Ritu Singh Pande.
What’s your background?
My Palestinian-Jordanian parents emigrated to Omaha, Nebraska, from Jordan. They moved to a tiny town of 10,000 people in Ohio. That’s where I grew up. My parents took us back to the Middle East every summer, so I grew up with one foot in the United States and one in the Middle East. It was definitely cause for an identity crisis: in small-town America I was considered The Arab and in the Arab world I was considered The American, so it created this situation where I couldn’t fit in anywhere.
It turned me into an outsider, an observer and set me on the path of storytelling. Identity was a big part of my coming of age and it continues to be a big part of a lot of people’s confusion, especially in the Arab world where so many people fled or have fled or are fleeing and identity is becoming a bigger issue.
Was it very tough growing up in the US?
My family went through a difficult time during the first Gulf War when racism hit small-town Ohio. I appreciate my Arabic roots and wanted to speak and read and write more and wanted to go to the Middle East in summer and was lucky. The older I got I began to integrate both sides and appreciated how lucky I was to have this perspective and the opportunity it gave me to tell stories at the intersection of these two cultures. It gave me a sense of purpose.
Identity is such a vital part of May In The Summer
Jordan is so full of refugees. It used to be that 70% of the population of Jordan was Palestinian and now you have a huge influx of Iraqi and Syrian refugees. There’s a larger identity crisis and in a place like that you just feel it’s part of the culture. I took a lot of that. It’s hard to take anything lightly when it comes to these topics, especially when it comes to religion. I wanted to be delicate and make sure I had a distinct point of view. I wasn’t out to make a religious statement in any way. The themes are larger than that: about bringing people together despite our differences. It took a lot of layering.
You shot the entire movie in Jordan. What was that like?
The film commission is amazing and we could not have done this without them. What’s a challenge is there’s this burgeoning film community and they’re getting great experience there. Kathryn Bigelow did two movies there and after my film Jon Stewart’s film shot there. It’s just exciting to be a part of it, but it still doesn’t have a lot of film resources. We had to bring our camera equipment in from Lebanon, where Beirut has a more established industry. We had to bring in key crew and flew in cast. It may have changed now but at the time that’s what we had to do.
We shot at the height of summer in July and August . When we were at the Dead Sea it was 118 degrees. We had crewmembers who got heatstroke and people who got food poisoning. It was intense. Part of our shoot was during Ramadan, so we had crew who were fasting and weakened [by the process.]
The way May and her sisters switch languages between Arabic and English was interesting
The language of the film is mostly English because Arab-Americans speak English as their first language and are more comfortable speaking English with each other. That’s how it is with my family. Even my mother, having spent three decades in the US, is more comfortable speaking English. You use the second language as a secret language. It’s definitely a process of deciding when we speak each language.
Why did you show several sequences where May jogs down a Jordanian street, with the men craning their necks to get a look?
When you’re someone who doesn’t quite fit in and you have this cross-cultural identity, it’s a struggle. [Jogging] is something May does, but on the streets of this country, it can be seen as a provocative act, so it’s about a struggle to be yourself and [you find yourself] in a system and your parents have expectations of you and everybody’s watching to see what you will do. May needs to learn to be more provocative, perhaps to be who she wants [to be].
Tell us about your choices in representing May’s fiancé
I wanted it to be so that he was present in his absence, so that was the biggest challenge for that character. I wanted to give enough about him and the relationship that May so you could understand their relationship. It was the part of the script I was re-writing right up until the shoot.
There is a broken marriage in this movie, as there was in Amreeka. Why does this theme recur in your work?
I am a child of divorce. Divorce is very taboo in the Arab world. I grew up in a very small, very, very strong Arab community in the Midwest and slowly the family started splitting up and then it came my parents’ turn. It stayed with me and [there’s this] whole idea of what divorce does to people, especially Arab woman, who feel they have had their chance. These were vibrant women in their 40s and 50s.
You’re a natural on the screen. How did this come to be your acting debut?
I’ve always been interested in acting and I’ve had people approach me and I have to admit I was terrified and didn’t feel ready. I’m very much a storyteller and felt that acting would come when the moment was right. After Amreeka a filmmaker friend of mine asked me to audition for her film and I felt it was the right thing to do, so we shot a scene in her film and had a great time. I didn’t write the role [of May] for myself and didn’t think I would play it.
I spent a year looking for someone but when I didn’t find anyone who could embody the character people were asking me why I didn’t do it myself. It sounded like a crazy idea, maybe a recipe for disaster, but I slowly came round to put myself on tape and after I got over the horror of watching myself and got some sense of objectivity I felt there was something there. To be myself on camera made me vulnerable, I needed May to be [vulnerable] on film so I thought that was an interesting parallel. It was good to see how supportive everybody was.
As an artist how do you respond to the ongoing crisis in Gaza?
What can I say other than it’s absolutely devastating. It makes me think about the stories I tell and what I can try to do. I would like to do something but it’s so difficult to figure out how to be of any help in that situation. To be Middle Eastern these days is to suffer from heartbreak.