Dabis earned her MFA in Film from Columbia University and was first known for her work as a writer and co-producer for Showtime’s “The L Word.” With the release of her debut feature film “Amreeka” in 2009, she became an international filmmaker to watch.
“Amreeka” tells the story of a Palestinian mother and son who leave the West Bank for a better life post- 9/11 suburban Chicago. They struggle to adjust to a new culture while facing backlash from their new community because they come from the Middle East. International audiences loved the film and it won many awards, including the International Federation of Film Critics Award in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, the Humanitas Prize, and the Adrienne Shelley Excellence in Filmmaking Award. Filmworks brought Dabis’s debut to Fresno in December 2009.
The filmmaker’s latest feature, “May In The Summer,” was shot entirely in Jordan because Dabis wanted to show a side of the Middle East that is rarely referenced in popular media. At Sundance in 2013, she described how the story being told is universal and she stressed the importance of the audience experiencing that kind of familiarity in an entirely different culture. She said, “We could see the context of the Middle East and yet a story that has nothing to do with the things that we see every day in the news.”
The film was inspired by her own multicultural experience; her mother is Jordanian, her father is Palestinian, and Dabis was the first in her family to be born in the United States. She grew up in a small town in Ohio and her family spent summers in Jordan. Her parents divorced when she was 17 and her mother moved back to Jordan. Dabis struggled with her multicultural identity growing up. In America she wasn’t “American” enough, and in Jordan she was “too American.”
Growing up surrounded by the misunderstandings that both Americans and Middle Easterners had toward each other drove Dabis to write about her experience. During the Gulf War her family received death threats and her father, a doctor, lost many of his patients. Once the secret service even came to her high school to investigate a rumor that her sister had threatened to kill the president. During Sundance in 2013, she said: “[Being] a Middle Easterner in a small town during the Gulf War really created a need for me to tell stories about the culture because I felt very underrepresented and also misrepresented.”
In an interview with France 24, Dabis announced that she’s taking a break from making films that mirror her multicultural identity experiences. “‘Amreeka’ was about being Arab in America, and ‘May in the Summer’ is about being American in the Arab world, so together the two films kind of complete a diptych,” she said. “So I’ve closed that chapter.”
Her movies about her conflicting identities and cultures may be winding down but her career isn’t. Dabis is reportedly in development for both film and TV projects, including an American film about a death that is also a love story, and a Palestine-based project in Arabic.
When “May in the Summer” comes to the Tower Theatre, Dabis will make a special appearance after the early show to talk about the movie and her work. Please join us.
Rebecca Horwitz earned her B.A. in theatre from UC San Diego. She currently serves as the Filmworks summer marketing intern.