This week we are very pleased to open MAY IN THE SUMMER, the new film by Amreeka writer-director Cherien Dabis. The film follows sophisticated New Yorker May to her childhood home of Amman, Jordan for her wedding. Shortly after reuniting with her sisters and their long-since divorced parents, myriad familial and cultural conflicts lead May to question the big step she is about to take. It’s a funny, one-of-a-kind movie that also provides a fascinating look at a very foreign and yet, because of the reach of U.S. culture and commerce, familiar place.
What was your initial inspiration for the script?
I grew up spending summers in Jordan with my mom and sisters. We’d stay with my grandparents’ where we slept on mattresses along the floor. It was cramped, there was no privacy and our personalities couldn’t have clashed more. The oppressive heat kept us confined under the same roof, which was just as well because we didn’t have anywhere to go anyway. It was a recipe for family drama.
When I was 17, my parents separated, and that family rupture has always been a wound I’ve wanted to confront. My mom moved back to Jordan in order to be closer to family, and I found myself spending even more time there. Whereas in the small Ohio town where we lived for most of my younger years, I was considered Arab, in Jordan, I was seen as the American. It was an interesting paradox and a part of my identity that I wanted to explore.
The subject of interfaith and intercultural marriage is a source of narrative conflict in the film. Can you discuss your direct or indirect experience with this and why you wanted to explore it?
I’ve certainly dated a fair share of people my mother has disapproved of. Attempting to reconcile her disapproval and subsequent prejudices with my own values and personal choices was undoubtedly a struggle large enough to inspire a screenplay. And yet it’s much greater than that. What could appear to simply be my own mom’s draconian belief system is really a symptom of a huge cultural problem: interfaith and intercultural marriage are not only frowned upon in Middle Eastern societies, they’re forbidden. I’ve seen it many times over up close and personal in my own family throughout the years. An uncle or cousin inadvertently creates a family scandal of epic proportions when they fall in love with someone of another religious or ethnic background. It’s an issue that speaks directly to the heart of a major conflict plaguing the Middle East, and therefore, an issue I wanted to explore.
How did you come to choose your primary cast?
I had worked with Hiam Abbass and Alia Shawkat on my first film, and it was such a great experience that I knew I wanted to work with them again. So when I started writing MAY, I immediately knew they’d be right for their roles.
I worked closely with NY-based casting director Cindy Tolan to find the other main cast members. We found actress Nadine Malouf (YASMINE) at an audition in the city. She was incredibly natural and her energy was vibrant, carefree and fun-loving. She also had wonderful comic timing from the start.
I’ve been a fan of Bill Pullman since Sleepless in Seattle. And while I thought he was the ideal actor for the part, I never realistically thought he would accept. On top of the fact that we were a small indie outfit, I knew I’d have to find someone adventurous enough to travel halfway around the world to shoot entirely in Jordan. I was beyond thrilled when I heard he wanted to do it.
We searched for over a year for an Arab American actor to play May and in the end, had a couple of candidates that we were seriously considering. At the same time, a friend of mine convinced me to audition for her film. We shot a scene from her film, and when she offered me the part, I started thinking about my own film. I was gun shy, but another friend encouraged me to put myself on tape. It was interesting, but I wasn’t convinced. So my friend sent my audition tape along with the auditions of the other actresses for the part to a neutral third party; someone I didn’t know; who knew nothing about the film. This person watched the auditions and wrote an incredibly candid paragraph on why I was the best choice for the part. I didn’t expect this at all but his argument was compelling enough that I called myself back (for another audition) and worked on it until I started to think it was – in fact – the best choice for the film. Eventually I shared my audition with the casting director and producers. Much to my surprise, they didn’t protest and seemed to think it was a natural choice. It made no sense! And the man who for all intents and purposes cast me, Hal Lehrman, became my acting coach. If it hadn’t been for him, I don’t think I would’ve ever had the courage to try it.
What were some of the most interesting challenges this created for you?
Putting myself in the position of actor / director for the first time left me in a much more vulnerable position than I would’ve ever thought. I often found myself struggling to manage my own natural insecurities. Thankfully, I was somewhat prepared for it. I had trained with Hal for a year and a half – specifically working on developing the skill necessary to go from directing to acting and back – constantly. As you can imagine, each requires a completely different mind-set, a very different approach. Directing requires complete control and awareness of what everyone is saying and doing. You’re looking at the big picture and seeing everyone’s point-of-view and yet translating it into the playable action for each actor. Acting, on the other hand, demands letting go entirely, allowing yourself to lose control and attempting to forget what’s about to happen. The way you do it is to immerse yourself in the details of your character’s experience of the story events. This continual shift in perspective created a very interesting challenge.
You shot the film in Jordan. Can you discuss the process that led to choosing Jordan and what it was like shooting there?
My mother is Jordanian, so I’ve spent the last 30 years travelling to Jordan. I’ve seen the country grow and change so remarkably that it’s shocking. One of the most surprising ways it’s changed is that it’s become incredibly Americanized. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a remnant of anything American anywhere. Finding popular American brands at the supermarket was nearly impossible. Now American fast food chains, shopping malls and car dealerships nestle on every corner of Amman’s streets. The city epitomizes the convergence of my two identities in a strangely familiar and often hilariously contradictory way.
Given what little most people know and see of the Middle East, I chose to shoot in Jordan in order to show this highly unexpected Americanized side of the Arab world. I wanted to illuminate the endearing contradictions inherent within a culture so known for it’s disdain of American foreign policy and yet so admiring of American culture from KFC to JLo to Pirates of the Caribbean. And even still, Amman is a strong Islamic, Arab capital. Nowhere else in the Arab world can one find such a unique melding of ancient and modern, American and Arab.
Of course we encountered all kinds of logistical challenges during production. Jordan is quite a bureaucratic place, and its pace didn’t always agree with the speed at which our production needed to move. There was always a lag on approvals and permits and the process of getting them was often confusing and encumbered. On top of that, Jordan’s film industry is still relatively new and many resources need to be brought into the country from neighboring Lebanon. As the borders with Syria were closed due to the political unrest there, we had to limit our equipment because it had to be flown in as opposed to driven from Lebanon through Syria and into Jordan, the way it would normally and much less expensively be done. We had to bring in all of our key crew and our main and secondary cast flew in from New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London and Beirut.
And then there was the food poisoning and heat stroke. We were shooting at the height of summer in Jordan, and at the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea, it was a whopping 114 degrees!
In terms of setting, was your choice of the Dead Sea as the site of the bachelorette party symbolic or significant to your mind?
Absolutely. I’ve been going there since I was a kid and wanted to capture the duality of what it is and what it’s become –a serenely quiet and peaceful place known for it’s soothing, healing waters yet surrounded by conflict and hostility with occupied Palestine a stones-throw away. (No pun intended.) And – perhaps the best part – home to enormous luxury resorts and spas known for their Spring Break-like party atmospheres. There’s a whole lot simmering beneath the surface and nothing is quite as it seems. For a movie aimed at portraying the contradictory nature of its setting, it would’ve been criminal not to set the bachelorette party there. Not to mention, as the lowest point on the face of the earth, it seemed the perfect location in which to bring the story conflict to a head.
There seems to be a growing cinema landscape in the region. Did you feel this and how did it impact you?
I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of the growing cinema landscape in the region for some time now. Ever since I shot my first short film in the West Bank back in 2005. It’s been amazing to see it change and grow. While I shot part of Amreeka in the West Bank, May in the Summer is my first feature shot entirely in the Middle East.
On the one hand, it can be frustrating to be a part of something that’s still in process. It means serious struggle due to the fact that there isn’t always the support necessary to make things happen the way you envision. It means taking on much more than one individual is physically capable of in order to produce what is intended. I think all my key crew who were brought in from the U.S. and Lebanon felt that.
On the other hand, it’s immensely gratifying to feel part of something new, to contribute to and be inspired by the growth of a burgeoning industry. Most films that shoot in Jordan shoot Jordan for another place – Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq. The stories for these films are mostly war-driven and set in villages and deserts close to the borders. May in the Summer was an American production not only shooting Jordan for Jordan, but also featuring the country as a character in the film and revealing it’s cosmopolitan side as well it’s natural and spiritual landscapes. In some ways, the film is a love letter to the country in which I partly grew up.