Palestinian-American filmmaker Cherien Dabis is used to being behind the camera. She was a writer for The L Word and went onto write and direct her first feature Amreeka, which premiered at Sundance in 2009. But in her new film, May in the Summer, Cherien is also the star, a happy accident of sorts that allowed Cherien to “direct from within a scene,” and also inform her about herself.
As May, Cherien is a NYC-based novelist going home to see her mother and sisters in Jordan before she marries her Muslim husband. The youngest sister, Dalia, is played by Alia Shawkat, and is a closeted lesbian until the end of the film. A sarcastic tomboy, Dalia is the least thrilled about having returned home, but happy to see her sisters. But their mother (played expertly by Hiam Abbass) is outspoken and unhappy, and has been ever since her husband left her for a younger woman. She spends most of her time sulking about May’s wedding, saying she will not attend, and carrying around a thick rope that she mindlessly attempts to unravel, even while shopping at the mall.
Everyone in the family has a secret and with the combination of smart writing and skilled actors, May in the Summer is a movie anyone who has ever felt at odds with their loved ones can relate to.
AfterEllen.com: I really enjoyed the film. Can you tell me a little bit about how you thought of the premise?
Cherien Dabis: I started conceiving of this project when I was on the festival circuit with Amreeka, as I was kind of promoting Amreeka and talking about it, that while it explored one side of my own cultural identity, that of being Arab in America, there was this whole other side that I hadn’t really explored in that film, and that’s the side of feeling—always being considered American in the Arab world. And that was where I first started getting the idea of a movie about a woman who kind of goes home. It’s really a movie about a woman who goes home. And sort of finds herself out of place there as well. It takes a look at that kind of cultural experience, the reverse cultural experience of my first film. So that’s kind of where it initially sprang from. And at the time, which was 2009 when I first started thinking about it, I was also really reading a lot about this trend of reverse migration. There were lot of immigrants leaving their adopted country in the west and returning home and finding themselves in various levels of discourse in their own culture. And there were a lot of unexpected things that were happening when they returned home. I just wanted to make a movie about that—returning home.
AE: Weddings are so symbolic in film. What made you decide to center around May’s impending nuptials?
CD: It’s always such a natural choice for what brings people together. Because there’s so many ways—my first film was much more semi-autobiographical and this film was less so. It’s more fiction. But in a really interesting way, life imitates art in this context, in this situation. Literally years into my writing of the script, my sister got married and her wedding was in Jordan. And all of my sisters and I found ourselves in Jordan, reuniting for the first time in 10 years. Like all being in Jordan for the first time in that long. It was just a really funny instance of life imitating art. When I started thinking about it, it just felt like a really natural way to bring the family together and also to really explore the rupture in family. The divorce created an enormous rupture in the family and it never fully recovered. And so I got this idea that I wanted to kind of explore divorce in a movie about a wedding, therefore being kind of a subversive wedding movie. Or a divorce drama disguised as a wedding comedy.
AE: Going in, I knew that Dalia was going to be revealed as a lesbian, but there were things that she did or said along the way that made me wonder if you were putting them in as hints—like her being a vegetarian or calling a group of men “retarded.” Was that something you did on purpose?
CD: I think it’s so much part of her personality. The character of Dalia is the one I know the most, the best, in a way. And she I think that’s just her voice. She’s a character who spoke to me very loudly, very clearly. And I always knew Alia would play that part. I worked with Alia on my first film and had such a great time working with her. She’s a talented actor and has such great comic timing. We became friends after working together on Amreeka so I had her voice in my head as I was writing that character. So there were moments where I thought, “Well what would she say…” I felt like I knew here, Dalia, the character very well. What it was about revealing her slowly through some of the comments she would make. So in a way it could be seen as dropping hints.
AE: The sisters are all so different but they all share the fact that they have a secret, so there are many parallels between them. Is that something you planned or that came out more as you were writing?
CD: I really wanted to make sure that was happening for everyone. I wanted everyone to have a secret and I wanted it to be about, a movie about a family—they’re all disconnected at the beginning. This rupture of a divorce created a lot of distance between them and things they’d never talked about. I wanted this to be a film about strong women who have to kind of overcome all of that and make themselves vulnerable enough with each other that they can reconnect and have stronger bonds with each other and also learn to love each other despite their distances. So that was something that was always there that I wanted to explore, because in some ways, the family is a microcosm of the Middle East. Everyone comes from a very different background, and they’re all different religions: One of them’s an Atheist, one of them’s a fundamentalist Christian, another one is a Buddhist. The father’s American, the mother’s Palestinian, so you have this homeland imperialist—and so I wanted to represent these different points of view within this one family that had to kind of overcome their distances in order to really become a family again.