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A headshot photo of Cherien Dabis. She is a Palestinian woman, she has long black hair, it is pared to the side, and is looking directly at the camera.

Season 3: Episode 2

Cherien Dabis

In this episode, Maori talks with critically-acclaimed director, writer, and actor Cherien Dabis. Cherien is known for directing episodes of Only Murders In the Building, Ozark, and Ramy. In addition to her work in television, Cherien has had a prolific career as an independent filmmaker with her films May in Summer and her groundbreaking 2009 debut feature, Amreeka, which depicted the life of a Palestinian single mother in small-town Indiana. In their discussion, Cherien talks about her directing style, what she learned from the actors she has worked with, and how her experiences as the child of immigrants and an Arab woman lends a much-needed perspective to American popular media.

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A headshot photo of Cherien Dabis. She is a Palestinian woman, she has long black hair, it is pared to the side, and is looking directly at the camera.

Cherien Dabis is a critically acclaimed and award winning Palestinian American film and television director, writer, and actor dedicated to telling complex authentic stories about under and misrepresented communities. Born in the U.S. and raised in Ohio and Jordan, Dabis studied film at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.


Last year, Dabis was Emmy nominated for Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series for the critically acclaimed and groundbreaking episode “The Boy From 6B” on Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building”, starring comedy legends Steve Martin and Martin Short alongside Selena Gomez. Told from the perspective of a deaf character and with only one line of spoken dialogue, Dabis relied on ASL, compelling visuals, and the soundtrack to tell the story. In addition to her directing work on season 1, Dabis directed two episodes of season 2. Most recently, she wrapped on the pilot for AMC’s upcoming psychological thriller “Invitation to A Bonfire,” starring Tatiana Maslany and Pilou Asbaek. Other episodic directing credits include Hulu’s breakthrough comedy “Ramy” and Netflix’s “Ozark.” Her television writing and producing credits include Showtime’s original, groundbreaking series, “The L Word” and Fox’s hit, “Empire.”


Dabis got her start with her debut feature Amreeka, which she wrote and directed. The film premiered at Sundance in 2009 and went on to win the coveted FIPRESCI International Critics Prize in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. It won a dozen more international awards and was nominated for a Best Picture Gotham Award, 3 Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Picture, and named one of the Top Ten Independent Films of the Year by the National Board of Review. It landed Dabis on Variety’s “Ten Directors to Watch” list that same year. Dabis made history when the film broke records in its theatrical release by becoming the most-screened Arab-directed film in US-cinema history.


A true multi-hyphenate, Dabis made her acting debut when she starred opposite Bill Pullman and Alia Shawkat in her second feature film, 2013 Sundance opener “May in the Summer,” which she also wrote and directed. It’s now streaming on Amazon. She followed it up with an Arabic-language starring role in Suha Arraf’s “Villa Touma,” which premiered at the 2014 Venice and Toronto film festivals. She can currently be seen as a recurring guest star on “Mo,” a new, critically acclaimed comedy for Netflix. She also joined the star-studded cast of Scott Z. Burns’ upcoming Apple TV+ anthology series “Extrapolations.” She is currently shooting Amazon’s highly anticipated, post-apocalyptic series “Fallout” in which she recurs as a guest star.


Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.

Produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions.

Executive Producer and Host — Maori Karmael Holmes

Producer — Kayla Lattimore

Associate Producer — Irit Reinheimer

Managing Producer — Alex Lewis

Executive Editor — John Myers

Music Supervisor — David “Lil Dave” Adams

  • Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil’ Dave.
  • This episode features additional music by Captain Planet feating KarenBe.
Show Notes

ET (directed by Steven Spielberg, 1982)

Sweetie (directed by Jane Campion, 1989) 

Amreeka (directed by Cherien Dabis, 2009)

Hiam Abbass

Alia Shawkat

Mo Amer

Ramy (created by Ramy Youssef, Hulu, 2019–present)

May in the Summer (directed by Cherien Dabis, 2013

Mo (created by Mo Amer, Netflix, 2022–present)

“The Boy from 6B” episode of Only Murders in the Building (directed by Cherien Dabis, Hulu, 2022)

“Ne Me Quitte Pas”  episode of Ramy (directed by Cherien Dabis 

“Boss Fight” episode of Ozark (directed by Cherien Dabis, 2020)

Director Fits (Instagram account)

Gaza 5K

All That’s Left of You (written and directed by Cherien Dabis, upcoming)

Nakba Day: What happened in Palestine in 1948? – Al Jazeera

What the Eyes Don’t See (directed by Cherien Dabis, upcoming)

What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, resistance, and hope in an American City (book written by Mona Hanna-Attisha, 2019)

Extrapolations (created by Scott Z. Burns, Apple TV, 2023)


[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity, and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens. 

You’re listening to Many Lumens where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change, and popular culture. I’m your host, Maori Karmael Holmes.

In this episode, I had the opportunity to speak with a critically acclaimed director, writer, and actor, Cherien Dabis. You may be familiar with her television directing work on Only Murders in the Building, Ozark, and the Emmy nominated Ramy on Hulu, a show which follows the life of an Arab-American man who’s trying to find meaning in his life. In addition to her award-winning television work, Dabis has had a prolific career as an independent filmmaker, with her films May and Summer, and Amreeka, her groundbreaking debut feature from 2009 that depicted the life of a Palestinian single mother in small town Indiana. I’m drawn to the powerful craftsmanship in Dabis’s work. Her stories often center characters who are trying to find their place while balancing two different worlds. As the child of immigrants and as an Arab woman, she lends a much needed perspective to our popular media. I was thrilled to have the chance to sit down and learn more about how Dabis became the filmmaker she is today. Dabis joined our conversation from Chicago. When I asked her where she considers home. 

[00:01:38] Maori Karmael Holmes: My first question is, where in the world are you today? And where do you call home?

[00:01:42] Cherien Dabis: Well, at the moment I’m talking to you from Chicago. It’s an interesting question. What do I call home? Especially as a Palestinian. But I have to say, after being in New York for 20 years, it’s probably one of the only places in the world that I actually feel at home.

[00:01:58] Maori Karmael Holmes: I am really interested in names and how people come to them, and I was curious about your last name, if you know what it means or where it comes from? And I know your father created an Americanized pronunciation, and I think there’s a metaphor in that because when people are calling you with that pronunciation, you’re not actually being addressed correctly. But I was just curious if you know what it means or where it comes from?

[00:02:23] Cherien Dabis: I love that question and I love all the research you did on my name. The pronunciation is Diabis, and my dad did in fact Americanize it to Dabis, which everyone confuses with Davis, so that’s fun. It’s really funny. I for years wanted to know what our last name meant, and I got various answers over the years. But most recently, my sister gave us research that someone had shared with her that our last name means, and I don’t have verification of this, I just like what it means. So I’m like, “I’m going to go with this version.” That the last name means the man with a kind humble heart.

[00:03:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s really, really lovely. And do you relate to that at all? Does that mean anything?

[00:03:11] Cherien Dabis:I’d like to relate to that, yes. I mean, I like the combination of kind and humble.

[00:03:17] Maori Karmael Holmes: I read that you grew up in a small town in Ohio, which for some ways feels very exotic to me. I’ve only lived in large cities in this country, but it’s also that sentence, “growing up in a small town in Ohio” is the most American thing ever in many ways. And I was curious, can you talk about what growing up there was like? And how it shaped your point of view?

[00:03:37] Cherien Dabis: Yeah. Well, it was anything but exotic. I think that my family was considered one of the more exotic things in the town. We were really one of a handful of immigrant families. I mean, this was like the whitest town, you can imagine. I think it still is if I’m not mistaken, but I haven’t been there in more than 10 years. It was challenging growing up there, very challenging, because we knew everywhere we went, we were just the outsiders. It was evident. I would say for the most part, we were just exotic-fied until the first Gulf War hit. And then really a lot of the people in this small town turned against us. And so then it just turned into Orientalism to blatant racism. But I was in my early teens during the first Gulf War, so it’s a very tender time in your life. And to experience the level of racism and discrimination that we experienced was really shocking and sobering and kind of made me realize I’m not American. Prior to that moment in my life, I really wanted to be, I thought of myself as American. I was the firstborn American in my family, in fact. And I didn’t like that we were different. I wanted to fit in. I was kind of that typical teenager that was just really wanting to fit in despite the fact that my parents were very proud Arabs, proud Palestinian, Jordanian, really wanting to instill that in us. I rebelled against that. But at that moment in my life, I really realized I’m not American, or at least I’m not just American and I never will be.

[00:05:17] Maori Karmael Holmes: So much has come up for me in your response to that, but at 12 you told your father you wanted to be a filmmaker, and he said, “You can’t be a filmmaker. You’re Palestinian. No one will care what you have to say.” But then somehow when the family got a camcorder, they needed you to figure out how to use it. And so you started recording things. I wanted to know, did you know other artists growing up? And what made you think you could become a filmmaker?

[00:05:43] Cherien Dabis: I think the only reason I thought I could become a filmmaker, well, first of all, I don’t think I even knew what a filmmaker was. I didn’t know what a filmmaker was really until much later, my late teens. And by that point, I knew what a filmmaker was, but I still didn’t know that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was obsessed with TV as a kid, TV and film. And I would look at the screen and I would think, “I want to do that.” And I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t know if it was acting. I didn’t know. Somehow I knew I wanted to do that. When I told my dad I wanted to be a filmmaker, I think that was really in response to what was happening, what happened to my family and really knowing that I want to tell stories. And so even though I didn’t really know exactly what a filmmaker was, I think I just was like, “Oh, that. I want to tell stories.” Film, that’s powerful. That, I want to do that. So I said it not really even knowing exactly what it meant and whether that was what I really wanted to do. And maybe I was just kind of exploring whether he could tell me more about that. And I was quickly shut down. I think originally I wanted to be a writer. When I said I wanted to be a filmmaker, I was probably talking more about writing because I had no idea what a director was. I didn’t know what anyone else was. I think writing was kind of the most accessible thing. And it felt to me like when you write, you’re telling the story. It was so interesting though, when my dad said that, it’s like he really lit a fire in me to prove him wrong. Suddenly this thing that I said as a kid, that I probably did really want, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what it was, I suddenly was like, “There’s now no other choice. This is it. I’m doing this thing to prove that people do care what Palestinians have to say.” And it wasn’t that I wanted to prove him wrong, to prove him wrong. I did desperately didn’t want him to be right. And I knew that he was probably trying to protect me. I mean, I knew that years later, I think, looking back. Protect me from disappointment. But I was really determined to show him that people care and people will care and things will change. And it’s interesting. There are moments where I think my dad was kind of right, and then there are moments where I think, “Nope, he was really wrong.”

[00:08:13] Maori Karmael Holmes: You wanted to move to New York. And I’m curious if New York delivered on its promises to you as a young person? Looking back now 20 years later, did it live up to your expectations?

[00:08:26] Cherien Dabis: It did. It did in many ways. I moved there in my early 20s to start film school. And it really was my dream, had been my dream for 10 years, to move to New York. I was begging my parents at the age of 12 to move there. I think by the time I got there, I moved there in September of 2001. So obviously that was a really tough time to move to New York City. And even though I had never lived there, I had only visited New York prior to that. Only visited for short periods of time, a couple of times. I was really mourning something when that happened. I felt like I had lived there for such a long time for some reason. I felt like I’d experienced the New York before 9/11, but I literally arrived the week of 9/11. So it was a different New York and it was a rapidly changing New York after that. And it was a weird time to be there. But in many ways it reinforced that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, in film school, telling stories, representing, and that was everything I had wanted. And soon history was repeating itself and the US was invading Iraq again. And it was interesting because I think 9/11 really made a lot of young grad students stop and go, “Why am I here? Why am I?” Especially film school. Why am I in film school? What do I have to say? And I was more clear than ever about why I was there and what I was there to do. So New York really did deliver in many ways. I had a great — film school was a great experience for me. I took out loans entirely to be there, and I was terrified. I had no reason to think I could become a filmmaker. My parents didn’t exactly support the decision. I didn’t have a background in photography or film. I just had stories I was burning to tell. So I quickly decided that whatever I lacked in talent, I would make up for [with] hard work. And I just nose to the grind really worked hard. And New York is a really inspiring place. It’s everywhere you go, you’re surrounded by this sea of humanity. And I found it to be electrifying and inspiring. And so I created a lot there. I’ve really created a lot in New York. I’m kind of grateful for whatever energy is there that I feel like I can tap into. And sometimes that energy does get to be too much, and you just have to learn to unplug from it, which took me a long time to learn.

[00:11:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I definitely read that you traveled back to Jordan quite a lot. Your mom would save up and take you all. And you existed, I think a lot of people whose parents come from elsewhere, existing in this liminal space where you’re not American enough. And then in your case, not Palestinian or Jordanian enough. Have you settled into your identity now at this age?

[00:011:34] Cherien Dabis: I think so, yeah. It definitely takes time. It really takes time I think for all of us. But those who kind of fall between the cracks, perhaps even more so. There’s still definitely moments where I am amazed at how much I still don’t quite fit in, but I have a greater appreciation for just my unique perspective and all the things I can draw from now. So it’s no longer suffering because I don’t fit in. It’s just sort of like, “Oh, look at that. Here’s that old feeling of not quite fitting in once again.” And just trying to appreciate that more than anything. In the US, I was considered the Arab growing up. And in the Arab world, even to this day at times, I’m considered the American. But as soon as you get to know me and hear my politics and maybe learn more about my values and you quickly learn, I’m sort of not American. There’s a lot of things about me that are not American. Even though when I go to the Arab world, I feel like an outcast there as well. I feel like there’s so much of my heart and soul are there. So many of my stories are there, are inspired by that culture, the people, the land, the history. And there’s so much more to draw from and my need to represent comes from that region. That’s what I feel like I’m here to do in a way, is really represent and tell stories from that part of the world, or about immigrants from that part of the world. So in that way, I think I also feel more Arab in some ways, more Palestinian Jordanian than I do American, especially as an artist.

[00:13:22] Maori Karmael Holmes: I relate to that even though I am only American as far as I know. I can’t trace to anywhere else that isn’t sort of broken by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And I think about how when you were saying you didn’t feel American growing up, I didn’t either. I think I had been trained not to see myself as that because of a lot of heartbreak on the behalf of my ancestors. And there was the moment when Obama was elected and I think for … it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay was for that brief moment. But not his whole presidency because obviously there’s lots of problems there. But the election night and inauguration, both of those moments, I just remember feeling like, “Oh, maybe I am American.” For like 30 minutes. It was a really interesting three months or so in that period that I was for the first time, I sort of felt like I had a place.

[00:14:13] Cherien Dabis: Yeah, it’s funny. I think that’s partly why I like New York so much. New York doesn’t feel all that American to me. It’s so international, it’s so worldly. There’s so many languages spoken, so many cultures. So there’s something about it that just I feel like I belong there. It’s one of the very few places in the US that I actually feel like I fit in pretty well.

[00:14:36] Maori Karmael Holmes: But what impact did your parents have on shaping your politics and your artistic practice?

[00:14:43] Cherien Dabis: Oh, my parents are really interesting. My dad should have been a history professor or a political science professor. He’s a wealth of information and an encyclopedia. He literally doesn’t forget a thing. So growing up, he was lecturing all the time. Giving us information, telling us what happened. Really sharing so many stories, historical stories, political stories. And really giving us, shaping our Palestinian experience, our Palestinian perspective. It’s challenging when you grow up in the diaspora. I grew up being told I was Palestinian, but I didn’t know really what that meant. I have some early formative memories that really kind of shaped my experience of what it was to be Palestinian. One of them was when my parents took us to Palestine for the first time. I was eight years old and we were held at the border. We were traveling from Jordan into the West Bank. We were held at the border for 12 hours and all of us were strip searched, including my baby sisters. The soldiers were screaming at my dad. My dad was screaming back at them. They confiscated a bunch of my mom’s makeup and electronics. And I remember thinking or worrying, being fearful that they were going to kill my dad. And after this 12 hour ordeal where we didn’t have food and water. And I remember driving into Jerusalem and sticking my head out the window and going, “Okay, this is what it is to be Palestinian.” They had a huge impact. I mean my dad, through all of the political history and context that he was constantly giving us. Through our trips back home, which my mother always insisted on. And my dad wanted us to go see his family in the West Bank. Sadly, after that trip, he stopped taking us. We would go to Jordan and he would go to the West Bank alone. I think he was so humiliated to have all of that happen in front of his family. So it was years later when I went back on my own that I started to form my own relationship to Palestine. But they had a huge impact. Both of my parents are very disciplined in their own way. My dad can sit down and focus for 12 hours without eating. And I’m like that, I’ll forget to do things. I’ll forget to get up and stretch and eat a meal. My mom is extremely organized. She was always like a to-do lister. And I picked up some really good habits from them that I’m grateful for, that I think have helped me a lot in my career.

[00:17:19] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah, I love that. Which films or directors do you consider to be formal influences for you?

[00:17:28] Cherien Dabis: My parents had a huge library of Egyptian films, all VHS tapes, and I grew up watching a lot of black and white Egyptian films. And Egypt was kind of the Hollywood of the Middle East in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. So a lot of my influence actually came from those movies because they were kind of more taboo breaking than even Egyptian movies are today. And there are some really amazing gems in there. I would say that those movies had a big influence on me. I would say that Spielberg movies had an influence on me as a kid. I think it was the first time watching something — ET was one of the first times where I realized a movie could be so emotionally impactful and funny and just so many things at the same time. And I’m talking about really young, because obviously ET came out when I was a kid. So I think that was somehow formative really early on where I was, like “That’s really like that. That’s amazing that you can go and see something and feel so much.” And somehow by that movie, I felt understood. ET wants to go home. I understood that. There was something about being just foreign and other and weird that I really related to. And then when I got older, I think that I started to really look at the artistry and craft of filmmaking more. And people like Jane Campion, her first movie, Sweetie, actually was a big influence on me.

[00:19:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: You went to Columbia University and earned your MFA. And then I am really impressed with the number of projects that you have worked on in, sort of Hollywood with a capital H. The L Word, Ozark, Empire, Quantico. And you also have had an impressive amount of films that got selected for Sundance. And I say that because of basically Sundance being the most important festival, not only in this country, but in sort of the feeder to Hollywood. And so I saw that you had two shorts and two features, which is a lot. I don’t know if there are more than that, that got in. And the thing that occurs to me is it feels like your career should be bigger than it is. And I’m not knocking your career, but do you know what I mean?

[00:19:47] Cherien Dabis: I love you. I would love for my career to be bigger. Let’s do it.

[00:19:51] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. It just feels like that constant slap in the face for women and women of color specifically that you’re not––I don’t know. People should know your name the way we know Lena Dunham, or a bunch of men that I could list. It just, yeah, I don’t know. I’m just kind of shocked.

[00:20:11] Cherien Dabis: That’d be great. Yeah, no I-

[00:20:13] Maori Karmael Holmes: There’s no question. It was just a reaction.

[00:20:14] Cherien Dabis: Yeah, no, listen, I really appreciate that. And it’s definitely been challenging. I’ve seen men go to Sundance, specifically white men go to Sundance and have a film do really well, and then get a three picture deal and get all of these offers. And I’ve never seen a woman get that, ever. Not one, I don’t think, unless I’m overlooking someone who in very recent years might have gotten that, but I don’t think so. So looking back, I think there probably should have been bigger opportunities after my first feature. Every once in a while I stop and go, “Were they there? Did I not see them?” I try to take a look at how my own decision making might have been flawed, or who knows, whatever. It’s definitely kind of baffling. And then at the same time, my dad’s words haunt me. I don’t think that our identity as Palestinians is particularly easy to navigate in the world. A few years ago, I heard that distributors had Palestine fatigue, film distributors. Yes, Palestinians have been fighting for their freedom for over 70 years. Yes, they were thrown off their land over 70 years ago. Yes, this has been happening for a very long time. But trust me when I say you are no more fatigued than we are. It’s just so ludicrous. But there’s just so much to unpack in that one statement, and that’s just one statement. When I made Amreeka, I set out to strategically make something that I felt would have popular appeal. I wanted there to be a lot of hope and humor, in part because that’s who I am. I love humor. I love comedy. I think comedy is so necessary for survival, especially when you are suffering. The more you’re suffering, the more you need humor, the more you need it to survive. And that’s what I find is so special about when I go to Palestine and I talk to everyday Palestinian people living under occupation, I’m amazed at how funny they are. At how much they are able to create buoyancy in their lives despite everything that’s happening around them, and make you laugh when you’re there talking to them. And so I set out to make something that I felt would have popular appeal. And in some ways it did. It did very well for a movie at that time. And in many ways it was ahead of its time and paved the way for some of the things to come after that. But trust me when I say that it was really not easy to get another movie made after that. I mean, the film did not go into profits, though it was critically acclaimed and did well at the box office. It didn’t go into profit. It was exceptionally difficult to get my second movie made. I made my second movie for half the budget of my first movie, and it still opened Sundance, and still was difficult to sell, and still was challenging to get out there. And again, I made a second movie that I wanted to cross over. That I thought, “Let me have broad appeal.” Because we don’t have movies that have broad appeal. And I was actually accused of, “Yeah, this is a movie about first world problems.” And I’m like, “So what you’re saying is we can’t just be human beings who are trying to have relationships and failing? We have to be victims of war or we have to be suffering occupation or being shot at for you to care. Is that what you’re saying?” It’s been very challenging every step of the way, I won’t lie. And yet at the same time, I’m not going to slow down. Definitely after making two indie features, I did need a break, in all honesty. I was really broke and attempting to live in New York City. And so I got into TV directing and I really needed to get my finances in order. I needed to get my health in order. Making two indie features that were international and shot in multiple locations was extremely taxing on me. So it was definitely kind of a necessary break, but I’m gearing up for my next features now and I’m going right back in. But it is, yeah, I mean that’s what we do, especially women of color. It’s just a grind.

[00:24:40] Maori Karmael Holmes: I think too, the landscape, I think you were sort of hinting at that a bit, has also changed so drastically-

[00:24:47] Cherien Dabis: Yes.

[00:24:48] Maori Karmael Holmes: In even the last three years compared to when you had these major presentations. And so yeah, it’s just an interesting observation that I was thinking about. I also, looking at your body of work, you’ve worked with a couple of actors a few times, the goddess that is, Hiam Abbass. And also Alia Shawkat, who I really just find really compelling as a performer. And also Mo Amer. And I was just curious, what have you learned from them since you’re also acting? And I know at least Mo also writes. What have you learned from working with the same artist repeatedly? And what have you observed from their practice that you’ve incorporated into your own?

[00:25:33] Cherien Dabis: First, I just want to say I love the three of them. I absolutely adore them, and I feel so fortunate that I’ve gotten to work with them. Hiam has been in my two features and I worked with her on Ramy, and she’s amazing. She’s become a good friend. And one of the things I learned from Hiam, she was in my second feature in which I was directing myself, and she was so sweet on that feature. She would lean in and give me direction if she felt like I needed it. She was just really there for me. But also I learned that I could direct a scene from within by just changing my own performance, and that was something that I learned with her help. She had just directed herself in a movie just before she came over to shoot with me. So she had just had the experience. So that was really helpful. Alia is just a phenomenal actor who I love and again, worked with on both of my features, and would love to work with her again. She’s so talented as an artist, as a singer, as an actor in so many ways, and she’s been doing it for so long. And one of the things that I think I learned from her just by watching her, is she uses her breath in this really moving way. And there’s a moment in May in the Summer where it’s right before she admits that she likes women. Where she takes this breath and it just makes the performance, it makes that scene. It’s so moving. That was a big learning moment for me, just seeing her use her breath in that moment. And Hiam has such power. And acting opposite her, you feel that. You see that. Mo is a master of improv. I mean, he’s so funny and he so thinks on his feet. And I think just watching him and acting opposite him on his show, I mean, first I was so humbled. I was like, “I don’t know how you think so quickly. I mean, you were just firing off. I can’t keep up with you.” It was really amazing. But one of the things that I’ve learned from him is get out of your own way. I mean, stop thinking, move the intellect aside, and just in instinct, instinct, instinct. And that’s how he delivers and how he creates such a compelling performance in his show. And also just think about all three of these actors that I love, is just they’re so authentically themselves. As someone who grew up in a relatively strict Arab household and was really raised as an Arab girl, I was taught to people please. I was taught to make myself uncomfortable, to make others comfortable. And not necessarily explicitly taught that, but that’s just the culture in so many ways. And so just watching people do what they do and really allowing who they truly are to come through in each part that they play. Mo has such a huge heart and you feel it. Hiam has such power and you feel it. Alia has such vulnerability and you feel it. It’s just been really inspiring to kind of witness that.

[00:28:36] Maori Karmael Holmes: I never imagined that there would be two different episodic series about Arab American families on major platforms at the same time. I was just curious if you imagined that. I’m of course talking about Mo on Netflix and Ramy on Hulu. How did you come to be involved in both of them?

[00:28:54] Cherien Dabis: I don’t know if I imagined that, to be honest. I hoped and prayed that we would have at least one. I don’t know that I would’ve had the audacity to imagine two, and at the same time. I think it’s pretty incredible. I got involved with Ramy through a mutual friend who recommended me as a director to Ramy. And he quickly reached out to me and we had dinner and really hit it off. And he just really entrusted me very quickly. I think having seen my work, and I think in many ways, at least the Arab-American community sees Amreeka as sort of a seminal, groundbreaking film that paved the way for this type of thing. So it made a lot of sense for me to come on board. And I’m so happy that they thought of me and that I ended up doing that. Because in many ways, directing the show Ramy felt like coming home to me. It really felt like making an indie feature. It was a world that I knew and that I loved. And my culture and my language and actors I had worked with and actors who were friends of mine who I’d known in New York for 20 years. So it was really a special experience. I don’t think I will ever have that experience again, because the show was the first of its kind, and there was so much excitement about it, especially in the first season and in the second season as well. I mean, when I started directing my episodes in season two, Ramy had just won a Golden Globe. So it was just really gratifying and fulfilling to get to do it again.

[00:30:25] Maori Karmael Holmes: You directed “Ne Me Quitte Pas” in season one of Ramy, which the New York Times called one of the best episodes of television that year. And then you were nominated for an Emmy for directing “The Boy From 6B” in season one of Only Murders in the Building. What I noticed about both of those episodes, they’re both episode seven. They’re also-

[00:30:45] Cherien Dabis: That’s awesome.

[00:30:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: Which is a fun thing. But they’re both departures from the season. And I interviewed director and actress Janicza Bravo, who talked about being given The Island episode for the series that she worked on. So there’s like a tonal or physical departure where the characters are leaving. And in both of these, it’s mostly point of view. In “Ne Me Quitte Pas”, we focus on Maysa, who we have not really focused on her in that season. And then of course, in Only Murders in the Building, it’s a silent episode from the perspective of a deaf character. Have you found in your other television directing, that you’re given the island episode as well? Is there any kind of sweet spot in that for you?

[00:31:24] Cherien Dabis: There is. First, I want to say that seven is my lucky number, and I love that you pointed out that both episodes were the seventh episode. I had not thought about that, but I love that. At some point I started looking for those because when an episode departs in some way from a series, you’re just given more freedom. You have more creative freedom to create something unique and different. And I found that that was a great way to make a mark and to get noticed. Because in a way, you’re making a little indie film within a series, just a little departure. So that was great. I mean, I got to do that on Ramy, and then I kind of got to do that on Ozark as well. I was given the episode where Marty was imprisoned in Mexico. And the writer at the time told me, “Consider this to be a departure from the style of the show. This is a little bit of a French new wave film.” And I was like, “Amazing. I love that, and I’m going to run with that.” And it’s funny because I think my work on Ramy got the attention of producers, the showrunner on Only Murders in the Building. And so when they approached me to direct the show, they specifically had the silent episode in mind and they pitched it to me. And I was already excited to work on the show because Steve Martin and Martin Short, I mean, I grew up watching them and was just bowled over that I was going to get to work with them. But then when they told me about the silent episode, I was like, “Okay, if I wasn’t committed before, I’m 100% in now.” So it’s really exciting to get to do those types of episodes because yeah, you’re just given more freedom and it’s really fun.

[00:33:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I wanted to ask if you enjoy directing television. It’s my understanding that it’s quite a different experience than directing film, and you have had this practice where you’re going in and out of both spaces. It also seems like television gives you an opportunity to practice, which I don’t think people who consider themselves filmmakers get to do very often. So I don’t know if you can reflect on that.

[00:33:32] Cherien Dabis: No, absolutely. I mean, I think that that was a huge incentive for me for getting into television. I just thought on average, it takes a female filmmaker five years to get a movie made. That’s the last statistic that I’m aware of. I don’t know if that’s changed, but that’s what I know. And between my first film and my second film was five years. And so by the time I got onto the set of my second film, I felt rusty. I felt insecure. And it took me a while to get into the groove and remember how to do the thing that I want and love to do. And so I was really excited to get into television because I was like, TV allows you to continue flexing a muscle that you otherwise have to wait years to flex. And it’s not reasonable. You know you can’t become a better filmmaker, or better director if you’re directing once in five years. And sometimes it takes more than five years to get a movie made. So that was one of the huge incentives to direct TV. That and just financial stability. And also working with a huge array of cast and crew. I mean, I have lists of crew members that I want to work with when I make my next feature. I’ve cast people––actors, cast members that I’ve worked with that I could now potentially reach out to directly. Or who at least know me and have worked with me and would be more willing to read something that I’ve written that I maybe want to cast them in. So yeah, there was, for me, I think a lot of incentive in continuing to do the work and becoming better at my craft. And also just getting to know people, cast and crew. I think one of the things that makes TV really challenging is that there are two things that are expected of you. One is that you have to direct within the visual world that’s already been created. So that’s an expectation on you as a director. So you have to know the visual rules of the world that you’re going into. That’s not too hard to figure out. But within the realm of the rules of the world that you’re going into, you have to make your mark. And so those are the two things that are kind of expected of you. And I think once I figured that out and got good at quickly assessing the landscape, TV became pretty easy. I don’t like when things get easy because easy can be boring. So for a long time, I’ve actually wanted to retire my episodic TV directing hat because I’ve been doing it now for seven years. Funny enough, around the time, shortly after I said I wanted to retire. I’ve been saying that for a few years now, to be honest. So it’s funny to then be nominated for an Emmy because I’m like, “Okay, now I can really retire. I can hang up this hat for now.” Go back to making some films, maybe shoot a pilot. I can change things up because of, I mean, it’s really, I’m very fortunate because I’ve arrived at a place now where I have choices, whereas prior to directing TV, I did not. So within a relatively short period of time, I was really able to explore TV directing and find a little niche for myself in these capsule episodes. Find some creative freedom for myself within that world. The huge bonus is that I actually got some recognition for it. And now I feel really empowered to make a film and I feel really confident as a director, and that’s something I’m really grateful for. And I don’t even think I’ll fully assimilate how grateful I am for that until I get to the set of my next feature.

[00:37:38] Maori Karmael Holmes: You talked about the discipline that you inherited or have taken on from your parents, and I can feel your seriousness. But I’m curious, as a writer and as a director who’s directing things that you’ve written, do you allow space for spirit to show up on set or in your work in any way?

[00:38:03] Cherien Dabis: So interesting. I mean, how do you define spirit?

[00:38:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well, I’d be curious however you want to respond to it. But for example, sometimes in hearing people talk about their experiences on set, actors or directors, there’s often these kind of magical moments. Both Denzel Washington and Halle Berry talk about words coming to them that were not in the script, but were actual words of the people they were playing.

[00:38:29] Cherien Dabis:Oh, wow.

[00:38:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: Denzel playing Malcolm X and Halle Berry playing Dorothy Dandridge. So just thinking about that again, these places where there’s some magic.

[00:38:39] Cherien Dabis: Yeah, no, for sure. Absolutely. I mean, I’m actually quite a spiritual person, so I was just curious how you define spirit. I think it’s taken me a long time. I think it takes a lot of confidence to let go. I’m definitely the kind of person that plans a lot, but then when I get to set, I throw it all out the window and I just am present. And one of the things I love most about directing is that you’re really, your job first and foremost is to just be there. To just be present to what you’re witnessing and to guide a little bit that way, a little bit this way. Great. There’s something really gratifying about being on set and just being able to focus solely on what’s happening right in front of you. It’s something that I think that we don’t feel we get to do a lot of in daily life. There’s a lot of looking at the past or planning the future. Living in the present moment can be really challenging for people. I’m actually a Buddhist meditator. I’ve been practicing Buddhist meditation for over 10 years. So I have gotten better at really letting go and allowing those things to happen. Though I will say I did do a lot of that on my first feature. And there were a lot of moments of improv that happened because all of us were very open to just letting the magic kind of happen. Letting there be spontaneity, really just being in the moment and feeling the moment and spontaneously responding. So I think that’s a big part of it. I will say I had a different experience writing a feature that I recently wrote. So the features I’ve written in the past were very planned out in many ways. I mean, I guess in some ways when I write, I kind of flow or I look to flow. I try to flow as much as possible. In the past, it’s been a little bit more of a struggle. But with a feature that I just wrote, that is actually a Palestinian epic that I’m trying to get off the ground now. It was the first time in my life that I felt like something was coming through me. I felt like it was writing itself. I felt like my ancestors were speaking through me and that I was flowing in a way that I had never flowed before. And that was really exciting.

[00:40:57] Maori Karmael Holmes: That just reminds me really quickly of this small thing that I saw Quincy Jones talk about once in a documentary. That genius doesn’t belong to us, that it is coming from above and your job is to practice and to make yourself prepared for when it visits.

[00:41:13] Cherien Dabis:I love that. That’s great.

[00:41:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’re not supposed to make broad stroke statements about groups of people, but I’m going to dare and say I find Arab women to be some of the most effortlessly stylish people on the planet. This is from my personal life and observation. But I did want to ask you if you care about fashion at all?

[00:41:33] Cherien Dabis: I wish I was more fashionable. I love that fashion can be such an expression of personal style, of personal character, of personal values. I really admire people who can use fashion in that way to really express who they are effortlessly. And I don’t know that I’m so good at it. It’s funny, I’m really in a place where I appreciate it more than I think I ever have. My mom is super stylish. I grew up with an appreciation for fashion I think because of my mom, and also some of my sisters are also very into it. I went through a really rebellious phase in my 20s where I just was anti-label and anti-big business. I mean, that’s ongoing. That’s not really a phase. But I do think that, I don’t know, there’s something there that I would really like to tap into more. I think I have a lot to learn when it comes to fashion. I’m just going to answer that one humbly.

[00:42:44] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well, I always like to think about what directors wear on set. There’s a whole Instagram account about Director Fits. And what do you wear?

[00:42:52] Cherien Dabis: No kidding.

[00:42:52] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.

[00:42:54] Cherien Dabis: What is this Instagram account?

[00:42:54] Maori Karmael Holmes:I think it’s called Director Fits. It might be just that.

[00:42:57] Cherien Dabis: That’s hilarious. I did not know that. Directing for me is all about comfort. It’s really just. And sadly, I think that kind of took over my wardrobe for a little while because I’ve been directing so much. So just my style became that of mostly comfort. Comfort-first type of thing. So you’ll see me in UGGs or sneakers and jeans and thermals.

[00:43:31] Maori Karmael Holmes: I was told that Taika Waititi, I don’t know if this is still true, but at one point would wear a suit at least one of the days, or the establishing day to establish himself.

[00:43:41] Cherien Dabis: No, my newest thing is that I will just represent by wearing a Palestinian sweatshirt at least one of the days. And funny enough, the day that I wore a Palestinian sweatshirt, I wear a Gaza 5K sweatshirt on the set of Only Murders in the Building. We happened to be on location, and there was just mobs of paparazzi outside of this diner that was all glass. And I ended up having a photo taken with the cast while I was directing, wearing this sweatshirt that says Gaza 5K. So that was pretty awesome.

[00:44:15] Maori Karmael Holmes: With more projects in the public light at this time that are about Arab Americans, or even more specifically Palestinian Americans, do you feel pressure to depict your community in a certain way? And I think about this as an African American person, there’s often this conversation around respectability politics and pressure on being the one of many different fields. And so I’m just curious for you if you feel that pressure.

[00:44:40] Cherien Dabis: Yeah, I mean, there could definitely be a burden of representation for sure, when you’re kind of the first to tell a particular story, or the first to represent in a particular way. I have felt that pressure, I think, from the very beginning of my career. But ultimately, this is where you have to just go, “Well, I can’t please everyone, and I’m only me and I’m only one person. And I’m only telling one story, and this happens to be the story.” So I have felt that pressure, and then I just have to talk myself out of allowing that pressure to influence me in any way. That’s kind of how I deal with it.

[00:45:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. You have a steadfast commitment to Palestine and Palestinian stories, and you’re now inside the industry. And not now. I mean, you’ve been inside the industry for some time. And still vocal about justice for Palestine, which I can only imagine is not an easy thing to do. I’m just curious where you’ve found your medal to be steadfast? And if you have any kind of big picture dream with regard to Palestinian focused film projects? Or for other Palestinian American filmmakers?

[00:46:02] Cherien Dabis: It’s interesting because it doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels like a mission, like a life mission. I think it’s just so woven into the fabric of who I am that there’s no other choice but to be steadfast. And it’s likely that’s coming because I’m not doing it for myself. I’m trying to, and I don’t mean to sound like lofty or self-important. But in some ways when you do this kind of work, when you’re representing an underrepresented and horrifically misrepresented and mistreated population community, you are aiming to uplift people. You’re aiming to uplift them. You know what I mean? I guess I think the steadfastness maybe comes from, now that I’m talking about it, I think it comes from being very aware of my own privilege. And knowing that there was a scenario in which I could have ended up in a refugee camp. There is a scenario in which, like cousins of mine, I could still be living in the West Bank. My father — something could have been different. I could have, why not me? I remember when I was young, my parents drove my sister and I through a Palestinian refugee camp. And we were kind of looking out the windows, and my dad said, “That could have been us.” And so I was really just always aware of the fact that it could have been me. That why wasn’t that me? And I have to do something because that wasn’t me. And so the fact that that’s not me makes me responsible to do something because I have the privilege to do something. So I think that really drives you. It gives you really never ending energy and impulse and need and urgency. Because it’s ongoing and it’s happening daily and people are suffering in horrific ways. So I think, yeah, that’s where it comes from.

[00:48:15] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. It makes me think of first-world problems, not as a bad thing. Right?

[00:48:20] Cherien Dabis: Right.

[00:48:20] Maori Karmael Holmes: That you’re sitting in that. Yeah.

[00:48:22] Cherien Dabis: Right.

[00:48:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: So let’s talk about your next projects. You said you have two. There’s a film upcoming called All That’s Left of You, which is an epic examining the relationships between grandfather, father, and son, and the legacy of trauma passed down to each. Can you talk about the origin of this?

[00:48:39] Cherien Dabis: Yes. Well, that’s a story that came to me almost 10 years ago. I started really thinking about telling our origin story, telling the story of what happened to us Palestinians in 1948. And I say us because even though I wasn’t alive back then, every Palestinian feels that trauma of the Nakba, which is Arabic for catastrophe. That’s what we call 1948 when the state of Israel was established and Palestinians were ethnically cleansed in order to make way for a Jewish majority state. Most people don’t know the story from that point of view at all. A lot of people think it was a Civil War. They don’t think about it as white settler colonialism. They don’t call it what it actually is. Either they don’t know or they don’t care, or I don’t know. So I really started thinking about how to tell that story. And I started really thinking about how trauma is passed down. Because my sisters and I obviously weren’t around in 48, and yet we have that collective trauma. And we have all of these stories and we’re living with post memory. Post memory is when the memory of something that happened to your parents’ generation kind of overshadows everything within your own life. And so I just, after really kind of musing on all of these things, I think for a number of years, a story came to me and it came to me. Usually stories come to me in an image. And the image that came to me is an image that we’ve seen on the news millions of times. It was the image of a stone being thrown, of a Palestinian kid throwing a stone. And then I had an image of a bullet flying out of the barrel of a rifle in slow motion and traveling towards the kid who threw the stone. And then I thought to myself, what if before the bullet hits the kid, we freeze-frame and we hear the voice of a woman? And she says something like, “I bet you’re wondering how we got here. I bet you’re wondering what kind of mother I am. You know so little about us. I don’t blame you. I’m here to tell you my story. I’m here to tell you the story of my son. But in order to tell you his story, I have to tell you his grandfather’s story.” So then we flash back to 1948 and basically tell the story of how the kid ended up in front of that bullet. And that to me just felt like a really organic way to tell a story over three generations. That in some ways explains how we arrived, where we are now, and then continues forward from the moment that the bullet hits the kid, and tells the story of what happened after that. That is ultimately what the movie is, and it’s a structure that is quite different than anything I’ve ever written. It’s much more political than anything that I’ve ever written. But it’s very intimate. It’s a family story ultimately, and it’s very personal. So it’s not a political movie as much as it really is a story of what happened to a family because of political circumstance.

[00:52:16] Maori Karmael Holmes: That sounds amazing. Thank you for sharing that. What is the other feature that you’re working on? Whatever you feel comfortable sharing.

[00:52:27] Cherien Dabis: The other feature that I’m working on is called What the Eyes Don’t See, and it is based on a book, a New York Times, what was it? Notable book of 2018. It’s written by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who is an Iraqi American pediatrician in Flint, Michigan, and one of the people to help blow the whistle on the Flint water crisis. So essentially it’s the story of the Flint water crisis as told through the eyes of the woman who helped expose it.

[00:53:01] Maori Karmael Holmes: And is that a narrative or documentary?

[00:53:04] Cherien Dabis: It’s narrative, yeah. So it’s kind of part immigrant story, part medical detective story. But yeah, Dr. Mona is a huge inspiration. And really with an incredible group of people in Flint, I think helped expose what was happening there.

[00:53:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: These both feel like emotionally weighty and serious topics to be having yourself involved in on a daily sort of professional basis. Where do you find refuge? How are you checking out at the end of the day or on the weekend?

[00:53:40] Cherien Dabis: Well, I will say I find humor in even the most serious of circumstances as a filmmaker, as a writer, as a storyteller. Again, because I just think humor is so important to survival. So I find refuge through humor in my own life, in my stories. And really more than that, meditation. It’s really how I’ve stayed sane over the years. And how if I’ve evolved at all as a person, I really credit my Buddhist meditation practice. I’ve really learned a lot through Buddhist teachings.

[00:54:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: Is there anything that you haven’t attempted professionally that you would like to?

[00:54:27] Cherien Dabis: I’d like to continue acting, actually. Not that I’ve not attempted that, but I’ve not really committed to that in a way. I’m doing that more now, actually. I play a small part in an upcoming Apple series called Extrapolations. And I’m currently shooting a series for Amazon where I have a recurring guest role. So I’m doing more of it, which has been really, really fun. And at some point I’d love to get cast as a series regular, I just would love to. I’ve already done the thing of directing and acting myself, and that was challenging. I would do that again. But what I’ve not really done is really get to commit to being a series regular, doing someone else’s material, hopefully something meaningful. It’s really great to be part of projects that I feel are important and saying something. And so far I’ve really kind of had the pleasure of being able to do that, being a part of projects that I think are, yeah, that carry weight.

[00:55:38] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s wonderful. My last question is, and this is a very Many Lumens question, who are personal luminaries or intellectual North Stars in your life?

[00:55:51] Cherien Dabis: I mean, look, I’ve mentioned my Buddhist practice a couple of times. And I would remiss not to mention my teacher because I’ve been studying with him for 10 years, and he’s unbelievable, absolutely my North Star. So I would have to say that on a spiritual level. On a really personal level, I would say my mom has been my biggest supporter and is a total North Star for me. Someone who helps remind me who I am and why I’m here. So I think I have to give her a shout-out.

[00:56:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: I think that’s great. I think that’s a perfect answer. Thank you so much for joining us, Cherien. It was really wonderful to have you on the show, and I really appreciate your time.

[00:56:35] Cherien Dabis: Great to be here. Thank you.

[00:56:36] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.

[00:56:37] Cherien Dabis: Thanks for having me.

[00:56:38] Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you. Look forward to seeing both of those films. And here’s to more acting for you!

[00:56:57] Maori Karmael Holmes: It’s now time for this week’s installment of Ask Maori. This is where you, our audience, is given the chance to ask me, Maori Karmael Holmes, your burning questions about the film world, artistic practice, or really anything you would like to have my perspective on. Here’s this week’s question. 

[00:57:18] Mariam Dembele: Today’s question is from Maryam Pugh. Maryam asked, what’s on your 2023 vision?

[00:57:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: I’m actually a little spooky and don’t like to share what’s on my vision board because I don’t want, uh, any haters. So I, I guess one that I feel comfortable sharing is that I’m looking forward to, really learning how to rest and making more space for my creative practice that isn’t directly related to Blackstar projects.

That’s it for this week’s segment of Ask Maori. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @Manylumens for information about how you can submit a question.

[00:58:14] Maori Karmael Holmes:To keep up with more of Cherien Dabis’s work, you can follow her on Twitter @Cheriendabis, and Instagram @Cheriendabis.

This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions. The host and executive producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes. This episode was produced by Kayla Lattimore. Associate producer is Irit Reinheimer, managing producer is Alex Lewis. Executive editor is John Myers. Our music supervisor is David ‘Lil Dave’ Adams. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil Dave. This episode features Music by Captain Planet featuring Karen Be.