Writer/director Cherien Dabis follows up her debut film Amreeka with the equally entrancing coming of age tale, May in the Summer. The film follows Dabis’s character, May, as she returns to Jordan and her cultural roots in preparation for her upcoming nuptials. Along the way, May discovers that her reservations about becoming a wife stem from her parents divorce almost a decade earlier. Once overseas, May is reunited with her two sisters and the siblings go on a journey together to better understand their personal hang-ups while struggling to find some common ground with their very traditional mother and their absentee father.
A few weeks ago in LA I was lucky enough to sit down with Dabis at the film’s press day, where we picked her brain about the motivation behind May in the Summer, the challenges with filling so many roles in the production, and the relevance of the material.
Check out what Dabis had to say below, and enjoy!
You wore a lot of hats on this film – writer, director, producer, star – what made you decide to take such an active role in this production?
Cherien Dabis: It wasn’t necessarily a decision as much as it was a necessity – especially the producing part. I obviously chose to write the film, and I chose to direct the film, I also chose to be in the film, although that wasn’t something that was planned initially. I didn’t write the role for myself. In fact, even though I’ve been interested in acting, and I’ve taken acting classes throughout my life, I would have never thought to put myself in my own film. I resisted it when other people brought it up and I spent a year looking for someone to play the part of May, and I just was having a really hard time finding someone who authentically embodied the spirit of the character.
People kept suggesting that I put myself on tape and that I consider myself, and finally it was just that enough people said it that I started to think maybe it was something that I needed to listen to and consider. So I did. I put myself on tape. It was very weird to watch myself for the first time. You have to kind of get over all of your hangups, not liking the sound of your voice or why do I do this thing, but I saw something there that I really had to be honest with myself was something that I was looking for in the character. So I called myself back. I put myself through a whole rigorous audition process to be sure that I could pull it off. That was something that I discovered in the process of preparing to make the film.
And then, the producing happened – again, it wasn’t something that I wanted to do, or planned to do, it was something more that I kinda had to do as the person that straddled the U.S. and the Middle East. I had producing partners in the Middle East and the U.S. and I was the only person who knew both parties, and could communicate with both parties, and I really was the bridge between the two countries. Also, I had a number of producers come on board that had to leave to make other projects, so I really was the only person who was on-board from the very beginning.
What were some of the challenges of directing yourself?
Cherien Dabis: The biggest challenge was that I spent like a year and a half training myself to do this. What that entailed was, I brought on a friend who is an acting teacher who became an acting coach to me. The process really involved me getting as much experience as I could in that back and forth of acting and directing. They’re incredibly different parts of the same process. I wanted as much experience as I could get in that before getting to set. One of the biggest challenges is having to be as objective as possible when you look at yourself, so you have to play mind games about how that’s not really you, how you’re really looking at an actor and you have to really put all your own ego and biases aside as much as possible. That’s something that I really practiced as much as I could before getting to set so that I could really figure out what I needed to do to get to where I needed to go.
One of the things that surprised me on set was you have to really be able to communicate as a director that much more. When you’re on a set and you see the director talking to an actor than you understand the director needs time, the director’s talking to the actor in between takes. But when the director is the actor, people take for granted that the actor is already ready or that the director is always ready to go. You have to really communicate, ‘No, actually I need to go talk to myself. I need time to talk to the actor.’ Then you have to go take that time. Sometimes I would forget to do that and I would just go again and realize that I hadn’t taken the time to go think about what I needed to communicate to myself, what I needed in the next take. The pressure of production really gets to you, it was an interesting surprise when I got to set, the fact that I needed to really communicate very clearly,’OK, I need to talk to the actor now,’ because that’s something the director always does between takes. That was one of the biggest challenges I think.
Why did you decide that this story was something important to tell, and why now?
Cherien Dabis: My parents are Palestinian-Jordanian, and I’m Arab-American, first of my family born in the U.S. and I grew up really going back and forth between the U.S. and the Middle East, Jordan in particular. After I made Amreeka, I was on the festival circuit with that film, and as I was talking about that film I just kept thinking how Amreeka really only embodied one-half of my cultural identity, and that is the half that is considered Arab in the United States. And, the other half of my cultural identity is the side of me that is really considered an American in the Arab world. I wanted to really look at that.
At the same time, I started noticing around 2009/2010 this trend of immigrants who would leave their adopted countries and return home, and then they’d find themselves at various levels of discord with their home culture, their home country. My mother became one of those people. She left the U.S. after nearly three decades and went back home to Jordan. I wanted to look at that trend of reverse migration, and that sense of not belonging, even in that place where you thought you were from. That was something I wanted to really take a look at, and I wanted to explore a family in crisis, and in divorce.
We’re moving into a world where we’re bombarded with more and more things every day, and it’s harder and harder to listen to our inner voice. I think that’s something that May’s really struggling with in the film. She has all this familial pressure, societal pressure, cultural expectations, even political expectations, and she’s really struggling to figure out who she is and what she wants and that was something I also wanted to explore in this movie – how do we get past all of these layers of things we’re bombarded with and that people expect from us, and really connect with our own inner truth.