x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 February 2018

Celebrating a wedding in Jordan at the Sundance Film Festival

Culture clashes are addressed in a movie set in Jordan, opening at the Sundance Film Festival.

The filmmaker Cherien Dabis on the set of May in the Summer. Courtesy Thierry Van Biesen
The filmmaker Cherien Dabis on the set of May in the Summer. Courtesy Thierry Van Biesen

May in the Summer is a deceptively sweet title for a film about cultures clashing. An Arab-American author journeys to Jordan for her wedding and collides with fractious relatives and confusing cultural identities. The film's writer and director, Cherien Dabis, stars as May, the bride at the centre of the family saga that she wrote and directed.

Shot entirely in Jordan, the film is in competition at the Sundance Film Festival, where it plays tomorrow, on opening night. Dabis has been there before as a writer and director. In 2009, she premiered her first feature Amreeka, which follows a Palestinian family from the occupied West Bank to the American Midwest, where ignorance about the Middle East combusts with fear and anger after the 9/11 attacks.

"May is like the mirror of Amreeka," says the American-born Dabis, 36, on a break from post-production in New York, where she lives. "It's about an Arab-American woman who goes to Jordan to plan her summer wedding. It's the reverse-immigrant story. It's the experience of being American in the Middle East, as opposed to being Arab in the US."

The daughter of a Jordanian mother, Dabis grew up knowing what it was like to be different in tiny Celina, Ohio, where her Palestinian father was a paediatrician. "Everyone knew we were Middle Eastern," she recalls. She and her four sisters visited Jordan in the summers. "Every summer, our identity shifted," she says. "In America, we were the Arabs; in Jordan, we were the Americans."

Dabis stressed that her script, inspired by some real events, is not outright autobiography. May has two sisters, Dabis has four, and May's father in the film is American, not Palestinian.

And placing herself in the lead, she insists, was not her first choice, although the tall, elegant filmmaker has the poise of someone who has been on both sides of the camera. "I auditioned people for a full year," she explains. "After I made Amreeka, I was encountering a lot of Middle Eastern filmmakers who asked me to audition for them.

"Acting was something that I was always interested in, from a storytelling point of view, but it was not anything that I pursued, because I was too busy making my own films," she says.

Finally, after acting in a film by a friend from school and receiving encouragement from her peers, Dabis filmed herself and sent the tape, via a third party, along with auditions of two other actresses, to someone who would evaluate them independently. "He wrote three paragraphs on each of us, and what he wrote about me was so compelling that he basically cast me for the part," she says. "Then I had to figure out how to direct myself. He ended up being my acting coach."

Alongside Dabis in the cast are Alexander Siddig as May's fiance, Hiam Abbass as May's mother, and Alia Shawkat who plays one of her sisters. Both actresses were in the cast of Amreeka. Bill Pullman plays May's American father. Ritu Singh Pande, who plays Pullman's new young wife, founded one of the companies that produced the film, which was made for less than US$2 million (Dh7.34m) - about half the budget of Amreeka, "and twice the production value", Dabis declares shamelessly. The Doha Film Institute funded about 30 per cent.

Dabis isn't shy in saying that she's proud of her second feature - "I wanted to make a beautiful film; in Amreeka we were going for a gritty look" - but she admits that the project almost collapsed as fighting raged in nearby Syria.

"Every time something happened, we had investors who got really skittish, and rightfully so," she says. "The markets were swinging and people were really freaking out. We had a false start on shooting when Obama didn't raise the debt ceiling in time and people were saying: 'What are we going to do?' Some of our investors pulled out."

Bringing in equipment from Lebanon and shipping footage back to labs there became a crisis. "The Syrian border was closed, so everything had to be flown to Lebanon for post-production, which cost us a lot more money," says the filmmaker.

"I was actor, director, writer, and one of the producers, trying desperately to keep everyone motivated in 114-degree heat, while making sure that no one was keeling over," she says, "I ended up having to take the reins, in a way that I didn't on my first film. I feel absolutely qualified to make movies now."

May in the Summer will screen at the Sundance Film Festival, which begins in Park City, Utah tomorrow and continues until January 27