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Cherien Dabis, Make a Wish

MAKE A WISH.

This article is part of Filmmaker’s Sundance 2007 Special Coverage.

Supported by numerous prestigious grants — including the Jerome Foundation’s New York City Media Arts Grant, the New York State Council on the Art’s Electronic Media and Film Distribution Grant, and National Geographic’s All Roads Film Project Seed Grant — Itmanna (Make a Wish), the most recent short film by writer/director, Cherien Dabis, will quickly follow its Sundance bow with screenings at Berlin and the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival.

A former media activist and public relations specialist in Washington D.C., Dabis is the daughter of Palestinian/Jordanian immigrants, and in addition to working on seasons three and four of Showtime’s The L Word, she is currently in development on her debut feature, Amreeka (called one of “Ten Arab Films to Watch” in 2007 by “Screen International”).

Make a Wish screens at Sundance before the documentary feature, Enemies of Happiness.

Can you say a little bit about your background? Where you’re from? Age? Education? Film experience prior to this film?
My parents are Palestinian/Jordanian immigrants who came to the U.S. just before I was born. So I was the first-born American in my family. I grew up in Ohio and Jordan, which was kind of a schizophrenic upbringing. I think it was this constant shuttling back and forth that made me want to become a storyteller. It was feeling misunderstood and misrepresented nearly everywhere I went because I didn’t quite fit in anywhere. Storytelling was my way of bridging the gap between these two vastly different worlds. I studied media and creative writing at the University of Cincinnati where I did my undergrad. Then went on to do an M.F.A in film at Columbia University. I made several shorts while I was there. One that I wrote even screened at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. It was called Little Black Boot.

Can you briefly describe what inspired your film?
My film is ultimately inspired by one of my earliest memories as a kid. It was one of the first times in my life that I realized what it meant to be Palestinian. I was sitting at the dinner table with my family in small town Celina, Ohio. And the evening news was on in the background as it always was in our house. On came a report of the political assassination of high-ranking PLO representative Naim Khader in Brussels. My father’s fork dropped onto his plate and his face went pale. When I looked at the TV screen, I saw the photograph of a man who looked very much like my father. I later found out that Naim was my father’s cousin. He was killed at the age of 41. That experience stuck with me. And later, when I was brainstorming ideas for a short film, I kept going back to it. There are so many Palestinian men absent from their families. I wanted to explore that absence and tell a story about the aftermath of political tragedy, and the people who are left behind.

Who were some of the people you collaborated with?
I worked with a good friend of mine Alison Kelly who is an amazing cinematographer. She shot a previous short of mine so we already had a rapport. We were partners in crime for the two weeks that she was in the West Bank with me. She did things that most DPs should never have to do, like go props shopping with me, decide on actor wardrobe, kill baby scorpions and pull focus while operating the camera. And somehow she made it all look easy. I also worked with two very talented young actresses, Mayar Rantisse and Lone Khilleh from Ramallah. I found them through Ashtar, a local theater group that trains kids for the stage. The theater’s Artistic Director Iman Aoun ended up being my casting director. She also plays the role of the girls’ mother in the film. It was like one stop shopping. I found all my lead actors in the same place. In that regard, the casting was remarkable easy. At least something was!

Were there any compromises you had to make on this film? Anything you’d do differently?
Because I shot the film in the occupied West Bank, I had to make a lot of compromises. For example, I chose to shoot mini-DV rather than film because I’d heard horror stories of fellow Palestinian filmmakers who had their film cans confiscated by Israeli security, or worse, exposed and ruined. To avoid that possibility, I chose to shoot 24- frame mini-DV with 35 mm film lenses, then transfer to 35 mm later. It’s unfortunate to be forced to make format decisions based on location, but in the end, it was a good look for the film so not too much was compromised. Unfortunately, the film suffers from some minor focus issues though. We couldn’t find a Palestinian focus puller (Israelis weren’t allowed in the occupied territory.) so we had to train a cameraman to pull focus. Luckily, the film’s style is rather soft. And the few shots that aren’t really supposed to be soft hopefully add some charm. (One can hope!) At the end of the day, even with such compromises, I wouldn’t change a thing. There was something about the challenges of putting this film together that made it onto the screen in the form of real, frenetic energy.

Any film influences?
I’m influenced largely by neo-realist cinema – Italian, Iranian and French New Wave. So I love directors like Francis Truffaut, Vittorio De Sica, Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami.

What are your expectations for Sundance?
I really only expect to have fun and meet a lot of people. I guess I also expect to feel lost and freeze my ass off. Good times.

Any films you’re excited to see at Sundance?
Definitely! I’m excited to see Red Road. I’ve heard such great things about it. I’m also excited to see Enemies of Happiness, the documentary that my short is screening before. It sounds intense. I’m also really looking forward to seeing the Tunisian film VHS–Kahloucha. It won Best Documentary at the Dubai International Film Festival, and I meant to see it there. I was so happy to see that it’ll be at Sundance.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve read or received about filmmaking?
That’s a tough one. I’ve gotten a lot of great advice. But I guess the first thing that comes to mind is: Don’t wait for someone to tell you that you can make your movie. That day may never come. Go out and make it happen on your own.

What’s your favorite/least favorite question to read in interviews with directors?
What are your film influences? It’s both my favorite and least favorite question. I love hearing what other director’s influences are. But I find it to be a difficult question to answer for myself. I have so many influences! How to whittle it down?

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