Sundance Features

January 18, 2007

Cherien Dabis, Make a Wish

"Are they going to ask questions? Or am I going to be standing there like, 'Please, somebody -- ask me a question'?"

Mayar Rantisse in Cherien Dabis' short film Make a Wish

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

I wanted to ask you a few things about Make A Wish. For the record, can you just supply some story background for starters?

It's a 12-minute short piece about a young Palestinian girl who desperately wants to buy a birthday cake. Then she gets to the bakery and discovers she doesn't have enough money for the cake that she wants. So she hits the streets and tries to land some cash and the story just sort of follows her as she tries to get the money to buy this cake. I shot it in the occupied territory last year, so it's really a look at what's happening over there form the point of view of a 12-year-old girl.

Are you originally from there?

My father's Palestinian.

To what degree is the story autobiographical?

I wouldn't say "autobiography," but I would say there's been loss in the family, and every time there is absence of a person... Really it's the idea of absence that inspired me to do the piece, because I wanted to tell a story about the aftermath of violence and the people who are left behind. And in telling a story about the people who are left behind... I mean, you find out at the end of the film that [SPOILER REDACTED]. That's kind of how, for me, how it came from a personal place.

You acquired a lot of festival experience with your previous short Memoirs of an Evil Stepmother, but you haven't screened at Sundance.

Memoirs didn’t, but the film I wrote, Little Black Boot, screened at Sundance in 2004.

I know you also went to the lab, but what was that last experience like, and how is it helping you prepare for '07?

I actually didn't go the last one because I didn't direct -- I just wrote. Not to minimize my participation as a writer, but it was just cost-prohibitive at the time. Sundance is expensive! So I decided to wait until I got accepted for something I wrote and directed before I went; I'd probably get more out of it that way anyhow. It was a very practical decision a few years ago when I decided not to go.

OK, so having not gone, but having the other festival experience, how are reconciling all of this to get ready for 2007?

I guess the biggest apprehension you have is that something is going to go wrong with your print, or the sound wont be loud enough. It's all technical apprehension. But I always get nervous before my screenings; that's never goes away, even though I've been to a lot of them. But it's manageable; it's not like I'm a basket case, but I'm always nervous how the audience is going to react: Is the audience going to like the film? Are they going to ask questions? Or am I going to be standing there like, "Please, somebody -- ask me a question"? That's kind of it. I think that when you go to a big festival, it's always difficult to find your way around, so that's always interesting: entering this whole new world and figuring out where to go and figuring out where all the parties and other things are. I just came back from the Dubai Film Festival, where we won best short film; it was just being in an entirely new place -- a relatively large city -- trying to find your way around. There's so much organization that goes into it for each individual person who arrives at the festival.

You took your feature script Amreeka to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab recently. How is development going on that end?

It's going very well; we're getting very close to closing some financing, which is very exciting. It depends on when it closes, but if it's relatively timely, then we'll go into production this April, and if it takes longer then were going to wait until late summer or early fall.

What about the impact the lab had on the script itself?

It was kind of incredible. I remember thinking at the time, what an indulgence to have 11 advisors meet with you for two hours each and talk about your story. It was like a 22-hour conversation about my script. It was such an amazing thing. I got really great notes. I did a rewrite based on that. And it definitely helped me get the script to where it's at now. It's funny because I thought that being at the lab meant that you were going to have to rewrite your entire script while your there. The first thing they tell you, though, is don’t do any writing this week. And it was such a relief.

And I don't know if this is relevant, but I am so grateful to New York for my short film. I got two grants specifically from New York; one from the Jerome Foundation -- the New York City Media Arts grant -- and one from the New York State Council for the Arts. Two of the three grants I got to make the film were from New York, so I definitely felt supported by New York. It was great.

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Comments (2)

I am trying to locate this director, Cherien Dabis -- but there is no record of her having attended the Sundance Screenwriter's Lab whatsoever. They checked their records from over a decade ago until now. No one over in Sundance was able to help me. Please, how can I reach her? Thanks.

You can reach her through her website She attended the Sundance Middle Eastern Lab in Nov. of 2005. The folks at the Institute know her.

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