Posted by Arab American Institute on June 19, 2015 in Blog

Award winning director, producer, and screenwriter, Cherien Dabis is a source of inspiration both on and off the screen. Dabis was born in Omaha, Nebraska to a Palestinian father and Jordanian mother and visited Palestine for the first time when she was just eight years old. Her latest award-winning film, May in Summer, has made waves by highlighting the complex identities of people and families in the Arab world, with both sadness and humor. On the film, Dabis shared, “The thing about this story is that these characters simply want to live their lives, but they are constantly being politicized by the people around them, which is somewhat my experience being a Palestinian growing up in the Diaspora.”

May_in_the_Summer.jpgCherien’s complex identity first confronted her at a young age. She was deeply impacted by her first trip to Palestine, where traveling as an 8 year old she was detained by Israeli authorities for twelve hours and strip-searched with her two younger sisters. Growing up in Jordan and the United States, her dual identity of being both American and Palestinian made it difficult for her peers to understand her. She quickly turned to artistic expression, and film in particular, to communicate the wonderful and challenging parts of being Arab American.

She relentlessly pursued film through education and training, with the goal of impacting conversations, lessening discrimination, and defining her own story. Dabis graduated with honors in creative writing and communications from the University of Cincinnati, and later received her Masters in Fine Arts, studying film, from Columbia University in 2004.

Using her talents, Dabis took to the screen, combining her artistic and communication sides beautifully to tell stories in an honest and authentic way, inspiring change in her audiences. Dabis’ films are known for having a the feel of lived-in experiences, which is directly inspired by the struggle with her identity she encountered starting at such a young age. She has crafted many powerful films to provide greater understanding of the immigrant experience and the stories of Palestinians.

Her first film, Make a Wish, was released as a short film in 2006. It portrayed an 11-year-old Palestinian girl who faces enormous obstacles buying a birthday cake. In 2007 it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and received a number of awards at other festivals.

Her first feature film Amreeka premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and Cannes to wide acclaim and is the first fiction feature to be acquired on DVD for theatrical distribution by National Geographic Entertainment. The film tells the story of Palestinian women who wins the green card lottery and immigrates to the United States in search of a better future for her sixteen year-old son.

Dabis has received both international awards and awards in the United States. In 2007, she won the Press Award at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, the Special Mention of the Jury and Peace Prize at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, Ministry of Culture Award for Arabian Feature and Short Film at the Cairo International Film Festival for Children, Variety’s New Talent Award, and was awarded Best Arabic Film and Best Arabic Screenplay at the Cairo International Film Festival for Amreeka.

Dabis continues to work on TV projects based in America and Palestine. Dabis is one of the most inspiring Arab American directors of our time, challenging mainstream, stereotypical depictions of the Middle East and giving a face to millions of immigrant stories. We are eagerly awaiting the next film that will surely have the same authenticity and honesty that comes with all of Dabis’s work.