To all appearances, May Brennan (Cherien Dabis) has it all — intelligent, gorgeous, the recipient of raves for her recently published book and set to marry her loving fiancé Ziad (Alexander Siddig), a distinguished New York scholar. But immediately upon returning to her familial hometown of Amman, Jordan for the wedding, the cracks in her seemingly perfect life begin to show.
May’s headstrong, born-again Christian mother Nadine (Hiam Abbass) disapproves of Ziad’s Muslim faith and is firm in her decision to not attend the ceremony. Her sisters Dalia (Alia Shawkat) and Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) revert to behaving like rebellious teenagers as their estranged father Edward (Bill Pullman) awkwardly attempts to make amends. Confronted with the wounds of her parent’s long-broken relationship, coupled with the unavoidable clash of old-world and modern values, May is lead to question the direction her life is taking. Her once carefully structured world appears to unravel as she grapples with her own truths in this fresh, exotic look at a woman caught in the crossroads between tradition and choice. Cohen Media Group’s “May In The Summer” hits theaters this Friday, Aug. 22.
The Source Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with the film’s star, director, producer and writer Cherien Dabis exclusively. Read our interview below.
Tell me about your inspiration for “May in the Summer.” Was it based on your own family?
Cherien Dabis: The film is definitely inspired by my own cultural experience. My parents are both Palestinian-Jordanian and they immigrated to the US right before I was born, so I was the first of my family to be born here. But we traveled back to Jordan almost every summer, Jordan and the West Bank. So, I spent thirty or more years going to Jordan every summer and seeing my country grow and change, so in a way the film is inspired by my summers spent in Jordan with family and all of the family drama that can kind of arise when you’re all staying together in tight quarters. And my first film, “Amreeka,” really explored one side of my cultural identity–you know, having grown up with one foot in the US, one foot in the Middle East … the dichotomy of my identity was in the US, I was considered an Arab, and in the Arab world I was considered an American. So “Amreeka” looked at the experience of being an Arab in the US, and I wanted to make a movie that kind of looked at the reverse of that experience. Which is that of being an American in the Middle East. So those were the kinds of things that inspired the film. And really, I see my first two movies as going together as a diptych to complete the whole of a cultural experience.
So what was the process like? When did you first get the idea and what was it like to actually make it?
CD: Well, I first got the idea when I was on the festival circuit with “Amreeka” and was talking about that film and was talking about my cultural experience as an Arab in the US. And that’s when I realized, wait a minute, there’s a whole other side of my experience that I could delve into and I started thinking about my summers in Jordan and my family there and the kind of surprising aspects of Jordan and how much I’ve seen it grow and change. And really become such a modern metropolis that is both a really strong Arab capital, but also a very Americanized city in an really interesting way, and in a surprising way. And that’s when I decided I wanted to set the movie in Jordan and really feature Jordan as a character in the film. I started writing it in 2009, it took about 4 years to get it into production. Which is about average, I guess, they say. And it was a really interesting process. I’d worked with Hiam Abbass and Alia Shawkat on my first film, the actresses, who were both wonderful. I had amazing experiences working with them on “Amreeka,” and when I sat down to start writing “May in the Summer,” I just thought of them both instantly for the parts of the mother and one of the sisters. And it was really great to write the script with them in mind, because I had never written with actors in mind for a part, so that was really a cool experience. And I was talking to them throughout the process as well.
Making the film was incredible. It was an enormous challenge in so many regards. I didn’t actually write the role for myself. In fact I spent a year looking for someone to play the part, and I just wasn’t finding exactly what I was looking for. Authenticity is very important to me, and I just wasn’t finding someone who really embodied the spirit of the character. And a number of people started to encourage me to play the part myself and my first reaction was like they were crazy. I just didn’t think it was a good idea to put myself in my own film and direct my acting debut. So I really resisted it and it got to a point where I realized I was resisting it because I was scared to do it. I was really afraid. So I had to kind of confront that, so I put myself on tape … watching it was interesting. I mean, you know, you have to get past all of your own insecurities like I hate the sound of my voice, why do I do that thing … but there was enough there were I was like “okay … there is something there that I’m looking for.” There is that kind of combination of strength and vulnerability that I wanted in the character of May, this duality. And so I called myself back for another audition, and I started working with myself. So it was a very interesting process to make this movie, because I spent a year and a half in training myself in that very specific skill of both directing and acting — going back and forth, shifting your perspective in this major way from the director to the actor and back and forth. You know, as the director you’re seeing everything, the whole world through this really wide lense where you know what every character is going to say and do, and you move all the pieces around on the chess board, and then as the actor you zoom in on the longest possible lense. You’re immersing yourself completely in the perspective of your character, and the details of your character, and you have to forget everything that you know. And you have to try to do something that will even surprise yourself, you know? Even forget what the director expects of you, and try to surprise the director–even though that happens to be you! It’s a little bit of mind games, it’s a huge shift in perspective. And so the process in making this movie was really in getting as much experience as I could in that, and then getting to set, shooting in Jordan, that also a whole other level of a challenge.
Tell me about that. How was shooting in Jordan?
CD: Well, it was definitely tough. It was hot, it was really hot.
It looked really hot.
CD: It was really hot. When were shooting at the Dead Sea, it was 114 degrees. So just keeping our cast and crew hydrated was a full time job, it was incredible. We had heat stroke, we had food poisoning, really so many things. And a lot of the movie is shot outside, outdoors. And we ended up shooting at least partly during Ramadan, so we couldn’t eat or drink in public … and some of the crew was fasting, really it was just incredibly taxing on the their bodies to be working that hard. So really it was so many things to take into consideration. You know, Jordan is a great place to shoot because there is support from the Royal Film Commission, but there’s not a lot of resources there, so I we had to bring a lot of elements in. We had to bring our equipment from Lebanon, we had to bring in our key crew, all of our main cast and secondary cast all came in from outside the country, so it was a very large undertaking.
So you said this was your acting debut. Have you acted before? Theater?
CD: I had acted in small things, not theater. I had taken acting classes throughout my life because it was always something I was interested in, and I had acted in some short films, mostly during film school. So this was definitely my acting debut.
Wow, well you did great!
CD: Thank you.
So, can you reflect a bit on how this film is more relevant today than ever–why the themes you’re exploring in this film are more relevant than have been in the past?
CD: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting given the political environment and everything that’s currently happening in the Middle East. I think as a Palestinian American I grew up incredibly politicized. As a kid, anytime, I told someone I was Palestinian, and I became extremely unpopular, or I became a political issue. And I think also given my own experience also growing up in a small town in Ohio, which was really tough during the first Gulf War especially, when my family experienced a lot of racism and discrimination. It because really important to me to tell alternative stories from their world. To tell stories that other people were not telling. To tell stories about the culture, about family, about relationships, about love from the Middle East. Because those are things that we don’t get to see anywhere else. I mean, the news has got it covered from a political point of view, and there are great filmmakers who are making overtly political work. But I choose to make films that emotionally engage the political aspects of every day life in a very intimate way, in a universal way, with hopefully a sense of humor and some levity. I think that that’s really important right now, I think that’s more important now than ever before, given that what’s happening in the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq, to Palestine. It’s really incredible, I mean it’s been happening specifically. … Israel-Palestine has been happening my whole life, but it’s cyclical. You know, and it just intensifies and seems to be getting worse. But at the same time, people are becoming more and more aware, which gives me hope. So, I engage with these really universal themes, but I do so while also looking at a part of the world I think a lot of people don’t know a lot about and hopefully introducing a part of that world that we don’t get to see very often hence getting to see it in ways that are both very familiar and that are building bridges … but where we can also see difference and appreciate the difference.
So what was your favorite scene?
CD: Wow. Well, my favorite scene in the finished film or my favorite film to shoot?
CD: Well, one of my favorite scenes to shoot was definitely the Dead Sea one, which was really fun. You just float on top of that water, and it’s really incredible, and it feels like you’re in a warm bath. I mean, the water is really that warm. The salt content is so high that we have to have a medic on set. The resort that we were shooting at was really worried that we were going to be in the water for like four hours. Alia Shawkat is in the scene with me so we had to get out of the water every 15 minutes and hose ourselves down to get rid of the salt, and then reset our bodies to go back in. But it was a really fun day of just floating in the water. The very beginning of the movie starts in an airplane, and we got to shoot in a Royal Jordanian aircraft.
So was it actually in the air?
CD: It was actually in the air. It was really fun, I mean, we had a number of meetings with Royal Jordanian, we met with our pilot, we chose what route we wanted to take, the pilot told us what he could do for us. He could slow the plane down for us if we wanted, he told us he could tilt the plane if we wanted. I told him I really wanted the sun to flare into the window, so we chose an evening flight, so we could have the sun setting and we got onboard on the aircraft and they gave us almost the entire business class section. And there passengers onboard that were like “what’s going on? What is this? What is this movie? And who are you?” And so it was a really fun experience because the captain kept the door open and I could just go like “Captain, can you slow down for us?” Or “Captain, could you tilt and give us that great flare?” And he would tilt the plane and the sun would flare into the window, and it was really amazing.
Wow, I was actually wondering that when I was watching the movie.
CD: Yeah, it was definitely one of my favorite moments.
What is coming up next for you? Projects-wise, life-wise?
CD: Well, I have a big American project coming up that I’m working on, that I’m really excited about because it’s different than anything I’ve ever done. It explores a side of me that is, as of yet, unexplored in my work. And it’s a project that I didn’t originate. It came to me as a script, and I was hired to re-write it and make it my own, which was a really great experience. And I’m also going to be directing it, so we’re out to cast right now, it’s a romantic comedy. With a sort of existential element to it, and we’re looking to cast big name American actors in it. So it’s my first sort of American project. And that’s with Andrew Lazar and Steven Chambers, who are really great producers. So that’s a really fun one. And I’m also writing a couple of Palestine based projects, I’ve been doing all these cross cultural projects, and now it’s like “This is in English language. And this is in Arabic language.” I’m separating the two now for a bit. But I’m also looking to get back into television and I’m developing a couple of immigrant based, immigrant themed series and one of them is definitely within the same vein as my first two features. So it looks at an American immigrant family in a similar way as my two features have. And you know, acting is also on the horizon! I acted in a film after “May in the Summer,” a Palestinian film. It’s the directorial debut of a pretty well known screenwriter, Suha Arraf who wrote “The Lemon Tree,” and “Syrian Bride.” And that film is also going to Venice and Toronto this year.