The May in "May in the Summer" is May Brennan, who sounds Irish but looks a bit more exotic. The daughter of an American diplomat working in the Middle East, May is a worldly New Yorker whom we meet as she is flying to Amman, Jordan to see her family before her wedding. Mom, long-divorced and still angry at her philandering ex-husband, is a Jordanian Christian unhappy that her daughter plans to marry a Muslim. May's two youngster sisters adore her while envying her success and apparent stability.
It is a complicated dynamic -- but one that the writer, director, star Cherien Dabis was born to explore.
"I was born in Nebraska, raised in a small town in northwest Ohio, and in summer our family would go back to Jordan and the West Bank," explains Dabis in a telephone interview. "I had one foot in the United States and one in the Middle East. I grew up with an identity crisis because I didn't fit in anywhere."
Dabis will be in attendance Thursday night when "May in the Summer," a funny, sad, bittersweet family story with global overtones, kicks off the ninth annual Berkshire International Film Festival at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington. After eight years of documentary openers, this is the first feature film to officially start the BIFF screenings.
This is the second feature for Dabis, who wrote and directed 2007's "Amreeka," about a Palestinian single mom who moves from the West Bank to a small town in Illinois. The trip in "May in the Summer" is from the U.S.
Dabis was born in Omaha, where her father, a Palestinian, was serving his medical residency. Her mother, like her mother in the film, is from Jordan. Her formative years were spent in Celina, Ohio, a small town where her father was a pediatrician, and in Jordan and the West Bank, where the family regularly visited.
Dabis' fish-out-of-water sensibility was dramatically heightened when she was 14 and the first Gulf War unleashed a flood of American jingoism mixed with ignorance of and distrust toward Arabs.
"We suddenly became the enemy," recalls Dabis. "We were well-established in Ohio and my dad was the town's only pediatrician, but my father lost patients, friends turned against us, we received death threats on a daily basis. The Secret Service even showed up
to investigate my sister for supposedly threatening the president."
The first gulf war involved Kuwait and Iraq, neither of which are Jordan and the West Bank, and the young Dabis noticed how the media blurred these lines by "creating and pushing Arab stereotypes." For someone whose personal identity crisis was now writ large each day in the news, the war was "transformative."
"I had a unique perspective which lent itself to being an observer and wanting to be a story-teller," says Dabis. "The cultures don't understand one another and I wanted to play a part in bringing them together. Also, I wanted to explore both sides of my identity and complete the whole."
That led her to pursue a career as a filmmaker, a journey that began officially at Columbia University in New York City -- in September of 2001. The World Trade Center was brought down by planes hijacked by al-Qaida terrorists on 9/11 and the bashing of Arabs began again.
"History was repeating itself," remembers Dabis. "It definitely reminded me of why I chose the road I chose, and I wanted more than ever to tell my story."
The latest chapter in that story, "May in the Summer," will be released in theaters later this year. Dabis is not an overtly political filmmaker, explaining she prefers to tell stories through families because they are universally relatable.
The politics often emerges in an off-handed fashion, as when May reminds a younger sister as they float in the Dead Sea that if they drift too far out they will encounter mines. Later, young men and women flirting and frolicking at the Dead Sea resort stare skyward in unison as fighter planes hurtle overhead.
"When people find that I am a Palestinian-American they ask about politics, but my experience is cultural and familial, not political," says Dabis.
Dabis' cast includes two returnees from "Amreeka," Hiam Abbass, who plays May's mother, and Alia Shawkat, who is quite funny as the outspoken little sister -- not surprising given her performance as Maeby Funke in the cult TV series "Arrested Development."
Dabis says she wrote the part of the worldly, sophisticated dad with Bill Pullman in mind, sent him the script and was thrilled when the veteran character signed on to the role.
Bustling Amman and the haunting desert emerge as characters in the film as well.
While Dabis, who is 34 and looks younger, has acted in small productions, this is her first major role on screen. She has a striking presence and her ease in front of the camera belies her relative inexperience.
"I was encouraged to play the part, finally embraced it, and I got the bug," says Dabis. "Acting is part of who I am now."
While she will always direct, Dabis observes that the lengthy process of bringing a film to the screen can be frustrating. With acting, she adds, "I can help other filmmakers tell their stories."
BIFF executive director Kelley Vickery got to know Dabis at the Sundance Film Festival, where "May in the Summer" screened, and describes her as a filmmaker to watch in the years ahead.
A moviemaker with a back story that sounds like a movie script itself would seem to have plenty to offer.