Why this Arab-American lesbian love story is being censored by film festivals

I Say Dust is a new short making its way through the film festival circuit and is causing some controversy along the way. Written and directed by Lebanese-American director Darine Hotait, the film explores the relationship between two Arab-American women (Mounia Akl and Hala Alyan) living in New York City.

Moun (Mounia) and Hal (Hala) meet by chance one afternoon when Hal, a poet who belongs to the Palestinian diaspora, enters the store where Moun works as a salesperson. They begin to question each other about where they are from, and while Hal is comfortable talking about her heritage, Moun is resistant to reveal too much to someone she just met. Then Hal suggests that she might want to take chess lessons from Moun, who is also a chess instructor.


Their curiosity about one another intensifies and later that evening, Moun attends Hal’s poetry reading. Afterward, Moun says a few words in Arabic before embracing Hal in a passionate kiss, and taking her back to her apartment.

While the film has won several awards in film festivals all over the U.S., there are two Middle Eastern film festivals that have censored the film or removed it from its programming entirely, simply because it shows two women kissing. 

We recently chatted with Darine about the idea behind the film and the censorship I Say Dust has faced in Egypt and Lebanon.

AfterEllen: What was your inspiration for writing this film?

Darine Hotait: At the start, I was just thinking to make a new film. I had various elements in mind but did not have a clear storyline. The only thing I was sure about was that I wanted to collaborate with my friend Hala Alyan, a poet and actress, on this project. So I had her in mind to play the lead role. I had seen her poetry performances and I wanted her to read poetry in the film. But still, I did not know what character she would play or in what context to fit the poetry in the storyline. 

During the process of writing the screenplay, I asked Hala to send me some poems. She sent me three poems of which I chose “Valentine”—it was published in her latest poetry collection. I started taking elements from the poem and placing them in the screenplay to the point that the screenplay and the poem merged to create the core of the plot. So I think the main inspiration behind the creation of this film is Hal’s poetry.


AE: Why was it important to tell a story about two Arab-American women and their relationship not only to each other, but essentially to their home?

DH: It was very important for the main theme of the film, identity in a diaspora context, to present the uncommon. I wasn’t at first working with characters than writing the story around them. I was working with a theme then shaping characters around it. I wanted to present all the different ways that diaspora challenges how one identifies himself/herself and here I meant identity in all its active forms such as political, societal, geographical, sexual. Diaspora is motion and, in that case, identity is in motion too. The search for identity is ongoing cause identity is flexible and variable. So it was essential for me to present an angle that challenges the stereotypes to prove this point of variable identity. In this case, choosing two women is an element that serves this theme rather. 

Of course as a writer, I knew that the characters were not the typical Arab women you’d see on screen and with that I wanted to break boundaries because that’s what living in diaspora means, breaking identities boundaries and constantly creating, searching and discovering new ones. 

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AE: The scene when Moun speaks to Hal in Arabic is really the turning point for the entire movie. Can you explain the importance of that moment?

DH: It’s the only line in the film that’s Arabic and that’s mainly to emphasize on the fact that Moun is also from Arab origins but given the fact that she refuses to frame herself within a geographical identity, she never really reveals her “identity” through her native language. This moment in the alley is a moment of bonding and letting go of all boundaries and restrictions. That’s why she decides to use her native language. 


AE: You have had some censorship with this film, can you tell me about that?

DH: The film was scheduled to screen at the 12th Lebanese Film Festival in June 2016. All films screening in public theaters in Lebanon must pass thru the censorship office to be granted a screening permit. I Say Dust was not granted a permit to screen and was banned by General Security because of a shot of two girls sharing a kiss. General security provided the director of the festival with the reason of the censorship saying: “Homosexuality is an act against the law and subject to imprisonment.” Therefore, the festival had to cancel the screening though they were more than willing to screen it anyway but the exhibitor would not allow that to happen fearing an escalation with General Security. Even though the film did not screen at the festival, it did receive a Jury Special Mention Award for Best Short Fiction. 

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AE: When you were producing and writing the film, did you ever think it would cause such controversy in those areas?

DH: When I work on a film I avoid thinking about what the audience might think or whether this might please or not. I just follow my intuitive creative flow and focus on the need to the tell a story with thematic values. My priority is to serve the story and its theme. I knew that some people in the Arab world won’t be very pleased to see two Arab-American women falling in love and some would not tolerate the idea at all and others would love the fact that I am challenging those stereotypes. I identify most with the latter.

I Say Dust screens at Outfest on July 10. Follow the film on Facebook, on Twitter or on visit Darine’s website. You can also rent I Say Dust on Vimeo now.