In the summer of 2012, it wasn’t uncommon for the temperature to reach 114 degrees in Jordan and Cherien Dabis had a wedding to plan for. Not her own, mind you, but that of the lead character May in her second feature “May in the Summer,” a soon-to-be bride whose reservations about her impending nuptials are multiplied by the disapproval of her mother (Hiam Abbass), a Christian who won’t attend her cross-denominational wedding to a Muslim professor at Columbia. Yet although Dabis had spent her own summers growing up traversing between the America Midwest, a part of her life that inspired her first film “Amreeka,” and Jordan, which has now inspired her second, she found herself in uncharted territory when mounting a production in the latter.
“We had people who had heat stroke, we had food poisoning, we had theft, we had two lawsuits. A lot of those things come with the territory of making a movie,” says Dabis, who had the added pressure of directing herself for the first time. “Also, we were shooting during Ramadan, which became a huge challenge. But it was an amazing experience in that I learned so much.”
It’s been clear in Dabis’ first two films that she welcomes any opportunity for education. Placing a premium on having her characters learn about themselves when faced with how they’re seen by others, she has created stories that have mined the perspective gained from an upbringing in both America and Palestine where personal identity is constantly evolving, despite the larger societal forces that are eager to keep the status quo. Yet in “May in the Summer,” she finds a country that’s as much in transition as its title character is, the clash of the past and present starkly visible everywhere May and her sisters (Alia Shawkat and Nadine Malouf) stop as she prepares for the wedding, whether it’s shopping at the Mecca Mall or joining the tourists at the Dead Sea who have turned the Biblical landmark into a scene not unlike one could find in Daytona Beach, minus the fighter jets that fly overhead into a conflict zone. Dabis explores these cultural chasms once more with great humor and depth and as the film begins to rollout Stateside, she took the time to talk about how she managed to bring out the most delicate of contradictions amidst a difficult shoot, the role of men in a film that spends most of its time with women, and where she’s going next.
Given your history, was it always the plan to make a film about your Jordanian heritage after making “Amreeka” about growing up in America?
It wasn’t always the plan, but it was actually a plan that came up as I was promoting “Amreeka” and I was on the festival circuit. I was realizing as I was talking about the film that it only portrayed one side of my cultural identity, and that was the side of me that was considered Arab in America, and that I wanted to explore the reverse of that, the side of me that was always considered the American in the Arab world.
The film is broken up into chapters with proverbs as the titles and though it’s never explicitly mentioned, you become aware May has written a popular collection of them. Did these actually come from her book?
I don’t know if those proverbs were specifically at her book, but I definitely wanted to play on the idea of proverbs. This is a character who has been immersed in Arabic proverbs and all of this incredible cultural wisdom, and the idea was she could use some of that wisdom right now. They were always there from the very first draft of the script. Because proverbs are such an important part of Arabic culture and language, I really wanted to include them as chapter headings, and they’re meant to give you a sense of May’s emotional arc and reflect her journey throughout the film.
From the very first scene where May leaves a message for her fiancee about how she thought about him as she looked at the empty seat next to her on the flight, the presence of men is felt as much as their absence in the lives of these women. Was that a tricky thing to balance?
It was definitely a tricky balance. The men are supposed to be super present – everyone from the father to the fiancee, and the male who’s really most present is the travel guide, who ultimately takes May to the desert where she has her big epiphany – and yet they’re present through their absence. I wanted the men to be developed enough that we really knew them and understood who they were, but also I needed them to be absent enough that we really understood the struggle behind our female characters and what they were going through.
You’re able to express a lot of things without really commenting on them overtly, such as the Mecca Mall where the women are able to have a conversation about faith and God while perusing the lingerie aisle, which seem incongruous. Are those kind of contradictions in Jordanian culture already there for you to just put your camera there and capture, or were those things that you had to work for, in terms of showing it?
So much of it is there. It’s really incredible. The film is meant to be somewhat subversive, and that scene, in particular, [reflects] what really strikes me about certain places in the Middle East where you have all of these incredible paradoxes. You can be in a lingerie store, and you’ve got women who are fully covered looking at lingerie – and if you notice in the scene, in the background, there is a woman who is totally covered, who’s looking at lingerie – it seems like such a contradiction. Then you’ve got the [young people] partying at the Dead Sea with the fighter jet flying by, so that you’re reminded that just on the other side of the sea, there’s so much conflict and violence, and so much that’s happening, and Jordan is surrounded by that right now, yet people are living these really seemingly normal lives. It’s a very surreal experience and I definitely wanted to capture that.
Is it easier or more difficult to capture that when you’re working with local film crews there, where few films have actually been shot?
It’s extremely difficult. In many ways, Jordan is amazing to shoot in because the Royal Film Commission is tremendous. They helped us with so many things, facilitating production. On the other hand, it’s a burgeoning film community there, which means it’s small and it’s young, and the crews don’t have as much experience. We had to bring in all of our key crew and a lot of our equipment came from Lebanon. Because the Syrian borders were closed, that equipment had to be flown in, so we couldn’t get as much as we needed because normally it would be driven in and it was definitely a huge challenge. You have to make a lot of compromises, and there are some painful choices that have to be made.
Ultimately, I wish that I’d been able to capture even more of the paradox of Jordan, the political context, and the surreality of being in a place that is just surrounded by so much conflict but where you can have this seemingly normal life that feels like you could even be in the U.S. But with our limited resources, a lot of that had to go by the wayside.
I would think you had a lot more confidence going into this as a second-time director, but did you actually want to challenge yourself in more extreme ways? Besides shooting in Jordan, acting seems like something big to take on.
I know, doesn’t that seem crazy? Making a second movie wasn’t challenging enough! I knew it was a big challenge, and crazily enough, I felt up for it. I definitely did feel more confident as a director, but then acting at the same time challenged that confidence a bit, so it was an interesting phenomenon. As an actor in my first feature film, then to be an actor who was being directed by myself, I definitely was faced with my own insecurity as any actor would have when you’re making yourself that vulnerable, but also I ended up being more vulnerable as a director. So again, it was a really interesting paradox of things that were happening, but I did everything that I could to prepare myself as much as possible and surround myself by people who I trusted. I have to say, given the circumstances, when I saw the first cut, I was just hugely relieved. We had so many challenges on this movie, it was really incredible.
Now that you’ve made films about both sides of your cultural heritage, does it feel like you’re ready to move onto a new chapter?
I definitely feel a sense of relief and a sense of excitement that I was able to finish these two films that go together as a diptych, that complete the whole of my own cultural experience and my own cultural identity. I’m moving on to different kinds of movies on some level – I’m working on a bigger budget American romantic comedy right now that’s fully English language and it’s very different than anything I’ve done before, but then I’m also working on a Palestine-based drama that entirely takes place in West Bank and Israel proper and all Arabic language, so they’re two very different projects.
I’m also getting back into television, which is where I started my career, developing a show that has a lot of the themes that I’ve explored in my first two films, so in some ways, I’m moving on and in some ways I’ll always be exploring themes that are close to my heart and close to who I am, in part just because I feel like that’s part of my mission in life.
“May in the Summer” is now open in New York at the Sunshine Cinema and will open in Los Angeles on Aug. 29th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.