“Cousins” was selected as a finalist in this year’s ShortList Film Festival, presented by TheWrap. You can watch the movies and vote for your favorite here.
To paraphrase one of the many jokes Billy Crystal throws in “When Harry Met Sally”: “In a city of 8 million people, chances are you’ll run into your ex.” This is the sly setup of Karina Dandashi’s “Cousins,” a 13-minute Brooklyn-set short centering on Layla (played by Dandashi) and Tarek (Ribal Rayess), two cousins whose reunion is turned upside down when Layla’s ex (Monica Sanborn) appears in the same bar.
“This is my first time doing a comedy,” Dandashi told TheWrap. The filmmaker, a Pittsburgh native and now living in New York City, has embraced stories about Arab Americans struggling with sexuality and desire in projects including her acclaimed short “Dress Up,” in which she also starred. “In my other narrative shorts, I’ve done more reflective and contemplative work that has a slightly more serious tone. But I thought it would be really fun to take all those identities that I used to put into my work in the past and put them into something with a little more levity.”
The key to “Cousins” is in the sweetness of its two protagonists. They have similar backgrounds, but were not raised the same, and throughout their meeting they find common ground that leads to silent confessions, culminating in a moving rendition of a nursery rhyme they grew up with.
“I’m very surprised by the people who relate to the movie,” said Dandashi, who shot for three days in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint and Crown Heights neighborhoods. “Whether they’re Syrian or Arab or Muslim or queer or not, they come from a spectrum that has come up to me and said, like, ‘Oh, this is how I feel about my Latina cousin, or my cousin on my mom’s side who I never see.”
Dandashi sincerely considers visibility diversity to be part of his filmmaking mission, especially after working on crews for major films like “Harriet” and “After Yang,” which also highlight the BiPOC identity. “Just reading the script for ‘After Yang’ was very powerful for me, especially since it also explored Asian and Asian American identity,” said Dandashi.
And while NYC is considered the melting pot of the world, “Cousins” reiterates that it has a melancholy spirit of its own. “Living in a big city generates a lot of isolation,” says the filmmaker. “And I think a lot of people relate to that feeling of being cold and dark outside and being separated from other people. I think that adds another layer to Layla’s character and her own self-isolation. Her cousin brings the family warmth that she misses in her life.”
Dandashi is pleased with the conversations “Cousins” has created and wants to continue that discourse in the form of a pilot he is creating based on it, set in his native Pittsburgh.
“It’s kind of an interesting challenge for the filmmaker, because you have to create a world, a character, a need and give some kind of resolution at the end of the movie,” he said. “That’s a lot of information to give in a very short period, and the shorts are really special and a lot of fun in that way.”
The 2023 ShortList Film Festival takes place online from June 28 to July 12, honoring the best award-winning short films that premiered at major festivals in the past year. See the finalists and vote for your favorite here.