Arab-American Filmmaker Darine Hotait Challenges Stereotypes Head On
By Jasmine Bager
You might not know her name yet, but you’ll definitely appreciate her full set of thick, curly dark hair and spunky attitude. Filmmaker and writer Darine Hotait is Lebanese-American — but like most powerful women, she doesn’t want to be defined by a zip code or passport. Growing up in Beirut and the U.S., she settled in New York six years ago after earning an MFA in Los Angeles. She founded Cinephilia Productions a year before that, an indie film production house that produces narrative films from the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa).
In her latest project, “I Say Dust,” Hotait wrestles with the Arab-American identity that many bilingual millennials — of any background — can identify with. The two main characters — both strong women — have an intense and intriguing journey on the streets of New York. They ponder the idea of belonging and what it means to be “home.” Through a game of chess and a powerful poetry reading — with lines such as “Where you from?” — the two women delve deeper into the idea of “home.”
In 15 minutes of beautifully shot frames, you travel through time, space, and various emotions. Hotait flirts with ideals that go beyond the norm of Arab-American culture, like two same-sex characters kissing. But she is clear that this isn’t meant to raise eyebrows or push buttons; she is merely translating what she sees as reality. This short film, like her others, packs a punch. It’s already won several awards and recently played internationally in places like Berlin and Istanbul, as well as opening in New York City.
Hotait has come a long way from her childhood home in Lebanon where she watched films on a red pillow on her living room floor. As an Arab-American journalist and aspiring filmmaker myself, I was excited to hear from Hotait about her journey. Here, she talks filmmaking, her foray into sci-fi, and the intersection of art and identity.
Jasmine Bager: When did you decide that filmmaking was your destiny?
Darine Hotait: It wasn’t really a decision that I wanted to become a filmmaker, I was always a writer first — a storyteller. I discovered films slowly with my older brother as children. We had this video tech [store] under our apartment in Beirut. We had a membership from my dad and we used to always get VHS films.
It was a huge deal for us, getting in and seeing the shelves. The films had no pictures, the boxes didn’t say anything except the title of the films. I was very little and would watch anything that they would get, a mixture between American, European, and Arabic films. The most stuff we used to see was martial arts films, which were the big hits — anyone during this period, in the early ’80s, would remember Bruce Lee films. Our balcony was converted into a living room in those days, we were on the first floor and had this — what is now considered — vintage TV. We would watch films in that room, within a library that my dad had. We didn’t really have a view of the city, we were so close we could talk to people on the street from the windows. Our TV was our real window into the world.
Jasmine: Growing up in a bubble in Beirut and then in the United States, you were exposed to both cultures simultaneously and take inspiration from both. Do you think many of these films are autobiographical?
Darine: Definitely any work that I do will stem from my experiences and what I’ve been through and it’s a mixture of all of these things. I can’t say at this stage that I do this or I do that — I’m experimenting. I’m at a phase where I want to tell any story that speaks to me and that is something that I can relate to. I was not a TV person, I was more of a film person growing up. When I moved to the U.S. at 11, things really changed a lot. Each one of us four kids started our own identity and a whole new schedule.
Jasmine: How do you find your stories?
Darine: There’s no specific technique that I follow, it really depends on the moment. In “I Say Dust,” I knew I wanted to collaborate with my friend and her poetry and her work. I found that we had so much in common in our life experiences; the idea of the film came to me and I wrote it.
Jasmine: “He says what’s your Valentine? I say dust” is a powerful moment in the poem and film. In that context, what does the character mean?
Darine: It has something very literal about it here, Valentine comes from the Valentine, which is love and what you feel you belong to. Dust is a representation of nothingness, to be rendered into various small particles that are invisible and untouchable. Dust is so light that it has no weight, it turns you into a nonexistent being. Dust creates a skin; we all come from dust. In the film, she [the poet] was inspired by the conversation with the other character, but we didn’t want to imply too much. These two women essentially communicate through the poem.
Jasmine: Your work seems to all revolve around intimate conversations made in a contained setting, almost like we are eavesdropping into a personal space. You also sneak in kissing or love scenes with same sex characters, but they don’t seem to be the story, they are just part of a scene. Was this your intention?
Darine: For me, it’s having everything inclusive. It’s like in most Woody Allen movies, you never see a black man — it’s so unnatural. I’m acknowledging and adding scenes that are in the middle, putting this point out there. They [same-sex lovers] are organically part of the narrative, they are not a subject matter, they are human beings. If it could get people to think about it as a natural thing, that’s all that matters.
Jasmine: With so many YouTube viewers and social media stars in the Arab-American community, why do you think that we are still lagging in terms of producing and creating films on a wider scale?
Darine: We are so used to imported entertainment and art so it’s a little bit challenging to create our own. When you’re always consuming other people’s art, you lack action toward new work. I think that’s a big part of it. There’s always this sense that everything else that is more competitive is not “for us.”
Jasmine: Do you feel like you have to choose a home, so to speak? In other words: “Where you from?”
Darine: Home is where I break. I really don’t want to define myself geographically in any way. For me, location has nothing to do with my identity, it’s basically all the experiences and the things that I’ve observed. Being in so many places and seeing the diversity around me, that shapes me all the time. When you have so much knowledge, you’re eager. I moved to New York in 2010, it made me poor, but at the moment, I really love it, too. There’s a downside and an upside.
Jasmine: What are you working on now?
Darine: Right now I’m working on a sci-fi feature film in Arabic and a web series in Dubai. The main inspiration for us Arab filmmakers is Hollywood; it’s the standard. Now we are not short on any resources in the Arab world, everything is out there, but we are in a phase where we are not yet ready. We are always trying to ride the wave, but we can’t yet catch it. A lot of people are reluctant [in the Arab-American film world] because sci-fi, for example, is different. They wonder: “How do we know that we are going to succeed?” There are people like me who want to change the genre, but we’re struggling. Think about a martial arts movie in Arabic, who will finance it and who will watch it? It’s different content than what’s out there.
Jasmine: How do you measure success?
Darine: Success is when you’re happy and satisfied with yourself and with what you’re doing. I’m aware that I’m in a good stage and getting better at what I do. I’m moving forward but I haven’t made my masterpiece yet.