Friday, July 22, 2005

To Jordan, with love

Making films based on her Jordanian roots is as important to lesbian filmmaker Cherien Dabis as stories about gay life.

Filmmaker Cherien Dabis often looks to her personal life to inform her film work, whether she’s plumbing her experiences as a lesbian for dramatic stories or tapping into her friendships to create vibrant characters. These days, she’s digging even deeper for her source material and going back to her Jordanian roots.

Born in the United States, Dabis, 28, shuttled back and forth between Ohio and Jordan throughout much of her childhood as her parents kept close ties to their homeland. All that changed with the start of the Gulf War in August 1990. In fact, her family’s melting-pot success story was quickly transformed into a cautionary tale about the perils of being “different” in rural America.

When the war broke out, Dabis’s family was living in Salina, Ohio, and the residents there lashed out at the few Arab faces they knew, including the filmmaker and her family. Her pediatrician father lost half his patients. Her mother couldn’t go out alone to shop. Her friends blamed her for the war.

Those memories helped fuel her passion for filmmaking as she searched for a way to give voice to the lives and experiences of Arabs and Arab Americans who were ignored or, worse, persecuted during that time.

The recollections also sparked her latest film projects — a short film about a girl living in occupied Palestine and a feature film about a Jordanian woman who comes to the United States and finds out that the American dream can quickly turn into a nightmare.

“I feel like it’s good timing for these films,” says Dabis, a former D.C. resident who currently lives in New York City. “With what’s going on in the world right now, people are more interested in seeing a different perspective.”

Occupied Palestine a long way from Columbia University’s School of the Arts in New York City, where Dabis earned her MFA in film and started her career. An award-winning writer and director, her first scripts and films were tongue-in-cheek retellings of traditional fairytales with lesbian characters in the lead roles of Cinderella and Snow White.

After winning kudos in 2004 for “Little Black Boot” (writer) and “Memoirs of an Evil Stepmother” (writer/director), which screened at Reel Affirmations, D.C.’s gay film festival, Dabis went on to write and direct several episodes of the “The D Word,” a spoof of Showtime’s “The L Word.”

Poking fun at Hollywood’s lesbian elite didn’t hurt her career though. She was hired to work as a staff writer on the third season of “The L Word,” where she helped plot out all 12 episodes with six other writers and wrote one of the episodes herself.

For some gay film fans, Dabis’ decision to step outside the queer-film genre and explore another side of her life may be disappointing. After all, a good gay or lesbian film is hard to find, and Dabis is an up-and-coming director who has proven that she has her finger on the pulse of the queer community.

But she appreciates that her success with gay and lesbian projects has brought her to this key moment in her career – a time when she can tell stories about disenfranchised people who have not only been ignored by the film industry but who also, to some extent, have been dismissed by society.

“While I’m meeting with people in Hollywood, I hear them say ‘Amreeka’ is too culturally specific,’ or ‘too political,’” Dabis says. “While the story is political, it’s not really in your face. It’s not heavy-handed. It’s dealing with the situation from a very human perspective. I think people can relate to this kind of story, because we’ve all felt like outsiders at some point in our lives.”

Dabis is looking for a production company to underwrite “Amreeka,” which she believes will cost between $500,000 and $1 million, and she hopes to go into production on that project after she completes work on her short movie, “Make A Wish,” which will be shot in the Middle East in August.

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