“Telling Our Struggle”: Cherien Dabis on Palestinian Stories and Rejecting Censorship
“Daddy, I want to be a filmmaker” I delivered it when I was 12, from our home in rural Ohio.
“You can’t be a filmmaker,” replied my father. You are Palestinian. No one will care what you have to say.
I was shocked. You are wrongI said to myself, categorically rejecting his statement. Yet his words continued to haunt me.
My first memory of traveling to Palestine to visit our native village dates back to the age of eight. Armed Israeli soldiers held my family at the border for 12 hours. They searched the contents of our suitcases. My father yelled at them when they ordered that we all be strip searched, including my little sisters, aged three and one. The soldiers shouted at him. I was afraid they would kill my father. I vividly remember walking through Jerusalem after the ordeal, sticking my head out the window and thinking: This is what it means to be Palestinian. People don’t like us. And so they treat us badly.
During the Gulf War of 1991, my small town in the Midwest turned on my family. My father, a doctor, has lost many patients. We have received death threats in the mail. The Secret Service came to my school to investigate a ridiculous rumor that my 17-year-old sister threatened to kill the president.
I became obsessed with trying to figure out why this was happening. And I started to notice that when I watched TV, I never saw anyone who looked like my family. If we were there, we were grouped together as “Arabs” – oppressors or oppressed women. The rare portrayal specifically of Palestinians had us wrapped in kuffyehs throwing stones or committing acts of terrorism. Without knowing us, how could people understand, let alone stop hating and mistreating us? I took my parents’ video camera and started filming our trips home to show my friends. And I announced to my father my intention to become a filmmaker.
My whole career has swung between beating myself up to prove my dad wrong, while repeatedly realizing how right he really is.
I started writing what eventually became my first feature film, Amreeka, while in film school in 2002. In this first draft, the protagonist was an Arab-American high school student sailing against racism during the First Gulf War.
“How about the main character putting a bomb in his locker?” My teacher said.
I was too stunned to answer. Did he assume that we all automatically know how to make bombs? That Arabs tend to blow people up? I put the script aside for a year and started making films about non-Arabs.
Other early career experiences reinforced this protective self-censorship. A colleague introduced me to an Israeli manager saying, “Honey, you are Palestinian. XX, you are Israeli. Go!” The conversation could no longer be about my work, but about a tense exchange on Palestine / Israel. While I was a screenwriter on a TV show, I got into a fight with a Zionist producer. I finished, I’ve decided. I can’t talk about this anymore. Not only was it exhausting to be faced with anger and conflict every time I tried to speak my truth, but I started to fear losing my job or future opportunities. However, I had wanted to become a filmmaker to tell the story of my community. I was living in deep dissonance.
I began to notice disturbing trends among other Palestinian artists. Some wanted to make their characters “palatable”, perhaps non-polarizing Arab-Egyptians. Others identified themselves as “Arab-Americans” or relied on their Jordanian citizenship. I resolved to represent. If I wanted to stay true to the little girl who first bought her parents’ camcorder, at least I had to walk into any room in Hollywood and introduce myself, loud and clear, as a Palestinian.
The more I navigated the film industry, the more Palestine seemed to be the last remaining taboo. Fear, even shame, was everywhere. Every Palestinian artist I knew, myself included, had to ask himself: How radical am I in my art? If I don’t want to be labeled anti-Semitic and blacklisted, what rules should I follow? To what extent can I speak directly about the occupation, let alone the Nakba – the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland? I was inspired by Palestinian artists who pushed the boundaries, but realized that the more they pushed them, the more they ended up on the sidelines.
I slid over different parts of the spectrum of self-silence. My first two feature films focused on Palestinian characters; however, I tried to be loved and to make non-political Palestinian dramas “accessible”. But I also knew that my films were inherently political, because the characters, and I, are Palestinians. Several distributors and producers have told me: “We don’t want to do anything political. I started to understand this as code for: We don’t want to touch Palestine.
Amreeka created Critically acclaimed at Sundance and was a choice of New York Times critics, but producers told me the film was “too culturally specific” and mainstream distributors wouldn’t touch it. My second film was also picked up by a small niche distributor. My father’s words echoed in my head. But how could I isolate the combination of factors that led to the marginalization of my job? Was it because I’m Arab? Palestinian in particular? A woman? Because my films have female lead roles and pass the Bechdel test? Did it have to do with what a colleague called “Palestinian fatigue?” “
During the talk-backs, I tried to avoid politics: “Why are your characters talking about Palestine? Palestine does not exist, ”I was asked. I tried to answer with the heart, without getting involved politically. “Palestine exists in the hearts and minds of millions of Palestinians, whether or not it is on the map. ” And then I tried to refocus the conversation on the movie itself.
The fear behind my self-censorship has long tentacles: Israel controls my ability to return home. I dream of living in Palestine, of creating my art with the film community there, where I feel most rooted. I am terrified that Israel could deny me entry into my homeland, as has happened to so many others who have been outspoken. Who’s gonna do it Will I be as an artist, if I can’t get to the place that most inspires my art?
There is a movie that I wanted to do for a decade. It is an intergenerational family drama that spans from 1948 to the present day, revealing the continued dispossession of Palestinians since the creation of Israel. During the confinement, I finally found the time to write the script. It is by far the most overtly political film I have written. i sat on it the script for three months, afraid to share it. Finally, at the beginning April, I decided: I must be brave. I sent it.
And then last month’s assault began. Disproportionate violence directed against Palestinians was not new. But the answer was. For the first time ever, producers, agents and coworkers emailed me saying they hope my family and friends are safe. The media and many members of Congress finally recognized that this was not a “conflict” between two equal parties, but settler colonialism. Something important was changing.
This change is also reflected in how we, as Palestinian artists, collectively break down the barrier of fear. An anti-apartheid letter published on May 26 is one example. This is not the first signature letter released to Palestinian artists, but the more than 320 Palestinian signatories is unprecedented. Equally encouraging are the 16,000 non-Palestinians who endorse the letter; Among them, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize winners, as well as many American Jews. I feel relief, joy and hope as I go through the list. The names encourage us to demand authentic portrayal on screen. The list gives us the courage to tell our whole truth, without having to wonder exactly how much we can talk about at any given time in order to get funding. The letter states: When we reverse our stories, we reverse our struggle. Palestinians deserve liberation; recounting our struggle brings us one step closer to its realization.
However, when I scroll down the list again, I notice all the names that are missing. Why did this producer not sign? Why is the name of this director missing? Where are the colleagues who have expressed their support to me in private? It is not just the Palestinians who are afraid to speak out. I remember an American actress telling me that she tweeted in support of Gaza during the 2009 assault and received so much hatred that, consumed with guilt, she deleted the Tweet.
But I know, without a shadow of a doubt: our silence – and the silence of the world – is complicity. It is out of time for us Palestinian artists to be who we are, to tell our stories and to speak our full and uncensored truths. And it’s high time artists around the world stood behind us when we do.
I will no longer censor myself. I’m starting with the movie I started showing in April. I’m excited to spread my story more widely, to present my truth with cast, funding, and producers. I think – I hope – that the world is finally ready. Otherwise, I will continue to speak out loud until I do.