The shifting landscape in Hollywood to reflect stories in film and television of people who actually represent the demographic of America is welcome and long overdue.
The celebration of women of color behind the camera, such as Ava DuVernay, Chloe Zhao, Issa Rae, and Cherien Dabis is paving the way for up-and-coming filmmakers to create content that is both inclusive and commercially successful.
Hena Mustafa and Dalia Anani are two filmmakers poised to make their mark in this new era. They are first generation Arab-American artists, writers, and directors who are creating multi-dimensional POC, queer, disabled, and mentally ill characters. Not characters who are only defined by what others do, but whole characters that experience loss, pleasure, pain, and all universal human experiences.
I caught up with them recently to talk about their artistry and mission for DEM Productions.
Q&A with Dalia and Hena
RW) Thank you, Hena and Dalia, for taking time out from your busy schedule to allow our readers to learn more about you two and your artistry.
How did you two meet, and at what point did you decide to partner in your artistic endeavors through your production company?
D&H) Actually, we are cousins, and we pretty much grew up together.
H) Dalia kind of paved the way for me to prioritize my art. I always looked up to her for the ways in which she broke the mold in our family. She gave me permission to take my craft seriously. She always encouraged me to write as often as I could until eventually we found this space to create together and discovered that our skill sets really complimented and balanced each other out.
D) I watched a lot of comedy, and Hena watched a lot of horror, so when we collaborated we were able to create drama that felt very nuanced which made our partnership feel very symbiotic. When Hena and I first came together to direct and produce a short film, she picked up where I left off and vice versa. It felt very intentional, and that's when we knew we wanted to pursue this partnership full-time.
D&H) In 2018, we took our relationship from cousins to collaborators when we wrote and developed our first TV series DEM. In 2020 we formed our production company under the same name DEM Productions LLC, and now have 8 projects (4 film, 4 TV) under development.
RW) DEM is not a slang term; what does it mean, and how does it fit into the mission you both have as Palestinian American women and creative artists?
D&H) DEM is an Arabic word meaning blood. It's also the name of our debut (and nearest and dearest) TV series. It captures our bond that bleeds into all the projects we've written and produced. We chose DEM as the name of our production company because as cousins, blood is what will always link us. Since then, we've made an intentional decision to always have blood as a calling card in our work.
RW) DEM is also the title of a planned TV series you are currently shopping around for a series deal. Tell us about the series briefly, and are the main characters in the series based on your experiences?
D&H) Yes, DEM is a TV series we're excited to be shopping. It’s a 30-minute dramedy series about two codependent cousins, an attention-addicted lesbian and an obsessive-compulsive artist supporting each other through the tensions of the first-generation Arab-American experience.
And yes, the show is based on our experiences. However, it is more so our personality traits and the personas of the people who have come in and out of our lives, put into fictionalized characters and situations. We wanted to keep our mental health issues and complicated relationship dynamics authentic and honest while still creating worlds and stories that would make for great television.
RW) You have described yourselves as queer and Palestinian storytellers. Does this explain what makes what you two are doing a pretty isolated pair with your creative work, or are you a part of a thriving new set of creatives with similar goals?
H) As a lesbian Palestinian, I've grown to find an online community via social media of other queer Palestinians and Arabs in different creative worlds: like tRashy clothing, a Jordanian-based Palestinian and queer satirical fashion line and Nassim (Sema) Dayoub, a New York queer Syrian tattoo artist. It finally feels safe to be queer, Arab, and proud, and I credit creators like them for that. That said, this representation hasn't been depicted on screen yet, which is why writing queer characters is so important to us.
D) As a neuro-divergent Palestinian, I understand how stigmatizing it can be in our community to live with mental health issues. I think a lot of SWANA people suffer from anxiety and depression, especially related to inter-generational trauma. As a first-generation Palestinian American in the diaspora, I feel a pull between societal pressure to assimilate and the survivors' guilt associated with the never-ending traumas back home. It has been therapeutic to create a world via our writing to unpack that, and I hope viewers can share in that healing.
RW) How far do you feel we have come as a nation to be more accepting of the LGBTQIA+ communities? Moreover, do you think the Me Too Movement has impacted your writing?
H) I feel like there's definitely been some progress in terms of visibility, but as a nation, and in Hollywood specifically, we have a long way to go. Queer representation as of now is fairly white. Lots of conventional, historical, and heterotypical storylines are coming through the mainstream because they're easier to accept. More so, specifically concerning lesbian media, there's a huge issue with the male gaze dictating how we're portrayed and consumed. This is why DEM Productions commits to only collaborating with queer, women, and trans directors on our queer-centric projects to make sure our relationships are portrayed by us, for us, and authentically.
D) DEM, the TV series definitely doesn't shy away from exposing the realities of a woman's experience, which, unfortunately, inevitably includes sexual assault and harassment. In season one alone, we showcase 4 assaults of varying degrees that have stemmed from our own experiences and traumas, and we believe will resonate a lot with our viewers. We highlight the double-edged sword that is call-out culture, examine shades of grey situations, and create a safe space to explore the complexities of consent.
RW) What is your 5-year plan for DEM Productions, and what would you like to accomplish during that period of time?
D&H) In 5 years, we hope DEM the TV series is premiering its third season and proudly staffing a writers room that's predominantly queer and POC. We also expect our writers' rooms to be filled with people whose identities we cannot speak for but plan to create space for on-screen. Similarly, we want to be in a position where we can amplify marginalized voices and bring up other creators with us in wardrobe, music, costuming, cinematography, etc. We want our crews to be as colorful as our casts. We also want them to be adequately compensated, well-fed, and well-rested. It sounds like a simple thing to want, but sadly these are currently things professionals in this industry have to fight for. Safety on set first, and always. Also, we currently have 8 projects under development, so we hope in 5 years, at least another show and feature have been produced. We'd like to be the first Arab women to win an Emmy for Best TV Series, maybe even Best Director too!
RW) Where can our readers find you on social media?
D&H) Our agent's gonna hate this answer, but we are a little old school in some ways, so the best place to keep up with us and DEM Productions is via our website DEMproductions.com.
Thank you Hena and Dalia. We look forward to seeing DEM streaming or aired on one of the broadcast networks in the very near future. We look forward to all of the other works to come from you.
Hena and Dalia are admirers of Cherien Dabis who is also Palestinian American.
Dabis has worked extensively in television as a writer and director. Her credits include Showtime's original groundbreaking series The L Word, USA Network's The Sinner, Fox's Empire and Netflix's Emmy award winning Ozark, and her trailblazing feature films 'Amreeka' (2009) and 'May in the Summer' (2013), in which she made her acting debut, both had their world premieres at the Sundance Film Festival.
Amreeka went on to win the coveted FIPRESCI International Critics Prize at Cannes as well as a dozen more international awards. It was nominated for a Best Picture Gotham Award, 3 Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Picture, and was named one of the Top Ten Independent Films of the Year by the National Board of Review.