For Emmy-nominated Palestinian-American director Cherien Dabis, Arab representation is key to her soaring career
Cherien Dabis has never felt an obligation to make people feel comfortable.
The critically-acclaimed filmmaker and actor realised that during her youth; raised in a small town in Ohio by her Jordanian mother and doctor father, a Palestinian refugee, she was forced to navigate a world that would seek to erase her identity or deem her very existence as controversial simply by proudly cherishing her heritage.
“Being Palestinian has formed who I am,” she tells The New Arab. “I figured out at a young age that if someone had a problem with it, it was their problem, not mine. The first thing out of my mouth when I enter a room in Hollywood is: ‘Hi, I'm Cherien, a Palestinian-American.’ I grew up telling my story that way, it has always been important to me.”
"In the Arab world, especially in Palestine, more than half of Palestinian filmmakers are women. It's the US that has been incredibly challenging – it keeps wanting to superimpose these stereotypes on us, even while they think they're challenging the stereotype"
Now Cherien has made television history as the first woman of Arab descent to be up for an Outstanding Directing award at the Emmys, as well as the first Palestinian-American to earn an Emmy nomination, ever, for her sensational work on Only Murders in The Building.
“As someone who always gravitated towards comedy and likes to infuse even my dramas with humour, I knew I could learn a lot from an incredible cast of comedy legends,” she says of working with Steve Martin, Martin Short and Nathan Lane on the murder mystery podcast series.
But it was the season one episode The Boy in 6B, told from the perspective of Theo, played by deaf actor James Caverly, that had both viewers and Emmy voters in awe of Cherien’s direction. “I got to do this episode that was so specific from a point of view that we rarely get to see and make sure that there was an authentic representation – it was one of the highlights of my career.”
It’s a landmark moment for Cherien Dabis, however, she is anything but an overnight success.
The 45-year-old has writing, directing and producing credits on some of the biggest shows network television has to offer; from The L Word to Ozark as well as a number of series including Quantico, Empire and The Sinner.
“I've been able to hone my directing skills with all of this TV directing,” she explains. “The thing about making a movie, and especially for women, is that it takes five years on average to get a movie off the ground so you're pretty rusty by the time you show up on that set to direct. TV provides this space where you can continue to do what you do, learn new things, flex that muscle and sharpen your craft.”
A craft she’s been honing since earning her MFA in film from Columbia University in 2004. But as much as she enjoys the opportunities to tell stories about people from every walk of life, Cherien is committed to combating the harmful Arab characterisations Western screens have served up for decades.
“I came to filmmaking, from the point of view of necessity,” she says. “All I saw growing up were these horrific stereotypes that were dangerous and that literally led to us being discriminated against, in the small town that I grew up in.”
When Cherien was 14, during the first Gulf War, her family received death threats and her then-17-year-old sister was investigated by Secret Service agents over a rumour she had threatened to kill the president. “When I realised that these stereotypes were resulting in racism that I'm experiencing,” the filmmaker says, “I wanted to change this, I wanted to do something.”
"Hi, I'm Cherien, a Palestinian-American.’ I grew up telling my story that way, it has always been important to me"
Since 2006, the filmmaker has been steadily cementing nuanced and relatable Arab stories on the big screen to ever-expanding acclaim.
Her first short film, Make A Wish, earned numerous awards for its depiction of a young Palestinian girl trying to raise funds for a birthday cake and three years later, she’d release her debut feature Amreeka.
Taking inspiration from her own life of being brought up between the West Bank and the US, the 2009 dramedy follows single mother Muna (Nisreen Faour), a divorced Palestinian Christian raising her son in Ramallah before packing up and moving them to Chicago, Illinois after winning an American green card through the lottery.
It was the first Arab-American film to secure major distribution, was screened in dozens of cities across the US, earned several Independent Spirit Award nominations and won the Dabis the Fipresci Prize at Cannes Film Festival.
It also marked the first collaboration between the filmmaker and actors Hiam Abbass and Alia Shawkat who she would reunite for her sophomore feature, 2013’s May in the Summer.
Cherien was able to spend many more summers in Jordan than in Palestine and wanted to showcase the vibrancy of the region beyond the typical desert/sci-fi backdrop used by Hollywood films.
“Jordan is a place that I've seen just change over four decades of my life – it's so full of contradictions,” she says. “It's so rich with texture, and people and refugees. It's full of people who don't necessarily want to be there, it’s a place with a little bit of an identity crisis and so I was excited to show that it didn't necessarily have the conflict that we're used to seeing when we see Arab films, but where you could see characters who were going through things that would be relatable to your average person, like complexity with parents, with weddings and in-laws.”
Both Hiam Abbass and Alia Shawkat supported the filmmaker’s decision to fill the lead role after struggling to find the right actress to play her Arab-American bride-to-be facing familial drama and relationship misgivings ahead of her wedding in Amman.
“There were a few moments where Hiam, actor to actor, whispered in my ear to help me or just give me a little bit of advice or a little bit of direction, to have me try something and I so appreciated that,” Cherien recalls.
“If I hadn't worked and been that close with them, I don't know if they would have done that. So it just makes the work that much easier or more flowing and enjoyable to know that you're surrounded by people who feel like family.”
"At a time when even claiming their Palestinian identity can be seen as a protest, artists like Cherien Dabis have never been so vital in committing Palestinians to cinematic past, present and future. With the critical acclaim she’s accumulating, this filmmaker is not going away anytime soon"
It was nights in with her family watching old Egyptian movies that provided additional inspiration for Cherien to become a filmmaker.
Her parents had a well-stocked VHS library of classics from Egypt's Golden Age such as The Nightingale’s Prayer and Lady of the Palace, starring Faten Hamama – “my dad was such a fan, my parents named my older sister after her!” – as well as every Abdel Halim Hafez movie musical. “I was so proud of that,” she recalls. “As an Arab American, seeing these movies that were able to push boundaries in a way that movies in the 80s and 90s didn't.”
This youthful penchant for Egyptian cinema certainly recommended Cherien for a producer-director role on Ramy Youssef’s self-titled comedy series inspired by his own immigrant Egyptian-American upbringing.
Episodes like Ne Me Quitte Pas and 3riana Grande, stand out in her direction on the series not least because of the narrative focus on female characters like Ramy’s mother Maysa and sister Deena, played by Abass and May Calamawy, respectively.
Now in its third season, Ramy is widely considered a trail-blazing series for its relatable depiction of Arab and Muslim culture and Cherien has surely contributed to its well-deserved, global recognition.
Yet it’s almost bittersweet to see the Western world embrace the show, herald it as breaking the Arab mould in a sea of bombers, billionaires and belly dancer stereotypes when Cherien Dabis had long been doing so.
“[Amreeka] was almost a film that was before its time,” she admits. “Many years later, Ramy came along and it was forgotten. Then May in the Summer was made but Arab American films didn't get a lot of publicity. Our movies tend to be ghettoised. We're still not taken that seriously as an audience, as a group whose stories deserve to be told and whose stories should be told by us.”
She certainly hopes that shows like Ramy and the sensational new Palestinian-American series Mo on Netflix – in which she stars as the sister of series lead and co-creator Mo Amer – will open the door for more opportunities for Arab stories to be told, especially from female filmmakers.
“I'm usually asked by Western journalists what it's like to be an Arab filmmaker in the Arab world and I'm like, ‘it's amazing.’ I've experienced nothing but respect and pride from people about the fact that I'm representing and telling our stories,” Cherien says.
“In the Arab world, especially in Palestine, more than half of Palestinian filmmakers are women. It's the US that has been incredibly challenging – it keeps wanting to superimpose these stereotypes on us, even while they think they're challenging the stereotype.”
As opportunities to act, write, direct and produce continue to present themself to Cherien, she plans on challenging herself even further by taking on a subject that has lived in the hearts and minds of every Palestinian since the tragic events of 1948. “I've always wanted to make a Nakba movie, or to talk about the Nakba, in my storytelling,” she says. “Three years ago, I started writing a screenplay that has been in my head for 10 years.”
At a time when even claiming their Palestinian identity can be seen as a protest, artists like Cherien Dabis have never been so vital in committing Palestinians to cinematic past, present and future. With the critical acclaim she’s accumulating, this filmmaker is not going away anytime soon.
She’s not going to silence herself either: not in life or in her filmmaking. “I became aware, in more recent years, how much I self-censored in my storytelling,” she says.
“But to me identifying as Palestinian is the reason I'm here. It's incredibly hard work to do what we do and gets our stories off the ground, especially as a person of colour, but the thing that keeps me going is knowing that I get to represent – that's the one thing that I'm most passionate about.” Yalla.
Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN.
Follow her here: @HannaFlint