ShortList 2023: Queer Arab Comedy ‘Cousins’ Explores the Ties That Bind

Writer-director Karina Dandashi tells TheWrap about her short that follows a Syrian American reuniting with her cousin

Karina Dandashi and Ribal Rayess in "Cousins"
"Cousins" (CREDIT: Courtesy of Karina Dandashi)

“Cousins” was selected as a finalist in this year’s ShortList Film Festival, presented by TheWrap. You can watch the films and vote for your favorite here.

To paraphrase one of the many quips Billy Crystal throws down in “When Harry Met Sally”: “In a city of 8 million people, you’re bound to run into your ex.” This is the shrewd setup for 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) turns up at the same bar.

“This is the first time I’ve actually done a comedy,” Dandashi told TheWrap. A Pittsburgh native now living in New York City, the filmmaker has previously embraced stories about Arab Americans grappling 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 thoughtful, contemplative work that has a bit more of a serious tone. But I thought it’d be really fun to take all those identities that I’m used to putting in my work in the past and put it towards something with a little more levity to it.”

The key to “Cousins” is in the gentleness of its two main characters. They’re similar in background but weren’t raised the same, and through their course of their reunion find commonalities that lead to quiet-storm confessions, culminating in a moving rendition of a nursery rhyme they grew up with.

“I’m very surprised by the people that relate to the film,” Dandashi, who filmed over three days in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint and Crown Heights neighborhoods, said. “Whether or not they’re Syrian, or Arab, or Muslim, or queer, they come from a spectrum that have come up to me and commented, like, ‘Oh, this is how I feel about my Latina cousin, or my cousin from my mom’s side that I never see.”

Dandashi heartily considers diverse visibility part of her filmmaking mission, especially after working on crews for major films such as “Harriet” and “After Yang,” which both also highlight BiPOC identity. “Just reading the script for ‘After Yang’ was so powerful for me, especially because it was also exploring Asian and Asian American identity,” Dandashi said.

And even though NYC is considered the melting pot of the world, “Cousins” reiterates that it has a melancholy spirit all its own. “There’s a lot of isolation that comes from living in a big city,” the filmmaker says. “And I think a lot of people relate to that feeling of it being cold and dark outside and of being separate from other people. I think that adds another layer to Layla’s character and her own self-isolation. Her cousin provides the familial warmth that she’s sort of missing in her life.”

Dandashi is pleased by the conversations that “Cousins” has created and wants to continue that discourse in the form of a pilot she is creating based on it, set in her 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 sort of resolution by the end of the film,” she said. “That’s a lot of information to give in a very short period, and shorts are really special and really fun in that way.”

The 2023 ShortList Film Festival runs online from June 28 – July 12, honoring the top award-winning short films that have premiered at major festivals in the past year. Watch the finalists and vote for your favorite here.