A Family Reunion with High Jinks and Catharsis in “Cousins”

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When Layla and Tarek meet up on a street corner one night in Brooklyn, they greet each other with the jerky unease of people who don’t know whether or not to hug. The two cousins enter a dimly lit bar and make stilted small talk through strained smiles, catching up on lost time. Tarek, who is visiting from Beirut, finger-whistles for menus and starts speaking in Arabic. Layla winces and puts down her phone. Just when the evening seems to reach peak awkwardness, Layla’s ex appears, a blond woman with a dapper date by her side. As the ex approaches the cousins’ table to say hello, Layla quietly insists to Tarek that he pretend he’s her new boyfriend.

Karina Dandashi wrote, directed, and starred in the narrative short “Cousins,” which was made with the support of Creative Culture, a fellowship program that provides stipends and mentorship to emerging filmmakers. Dandashi’s partnership with the Palestinian American producer Aya Hamdan was vital to the short’s development, she told me, over Zoom. “It’s very important for me to have my creative collaborators come from within my community, and have a piece of the story we’re trying to make,” Dandashi said. “I think that authenticity is really important.”

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The idea for the film was seeded by Dandashi’s childhood memories of travelling from the U.S. to Syria—and later, when entering the war-torn country became impossible, to Beirut and Dubai—to visit family. Dandashi, who was raised in the U.S., remembers the feelings of cultural disconnect between her and her cousins as they grappled to find things to talk about. She felt guilty about not being able to speak Arabic, and worried that her family might judge her if they knew more intimate details about her life. That dynamic is captured in the film: at first, Layla and Tarek’s wariness about their own differences inhibits their ability to connect and see the truth of each other. But, as the night unfolds, the two recapture their bond, and a spirit of fun. Dandashi said that the short was an outlet to examine those complicated family feelings through a comedic lens.

“Cousins” reflects Dandashi’s own journey coming to terms with her intersecting identities—a theme she’s continuing to explore while writing a TV pilot based on the film. “I definitely see a future for the characters of Layla and Tarek, and I think there’s so much more to talk about. We rarely see queer Arab women on the screen, if at all, in the mainstream,” Dandashi said.

Sometimes, the walls we put up with our relatives are necessary boundaries. Other times, they’re simply projections of our own fears, “Cousins” suggests. In the end, Layla and Tarek find common ground and a way to “lean on one another, which is what family means to me,” Dandashi said. “People will always surprise you.”

Sourse: newyorker.com

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