Here’s a film that treats the issue of Arab immigration to the US with lightheartedness, precision and heartfelt compassion. Palestinian-Jordanian director Cherien Dabis’ debut feature “Amreeka is the first film to deal with the Arab-American experience from a realistic, grounded perspective devoid of the superlatives and self-pity that marred similar previous efforts.
Set in 2003, at the start of the American invasion of Iraq, “Amreeka centers on Muna (a fantastic Nisreen Faour), a divorced Palestinian Christian mother growing weary of the daily humiliations and suffocating routine she’s subjected to at checkpoints while commuting to work in the West Bank. The confinement of the occupation and the feeling of alienation impel her to move to the US with her 16-year-old meek son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem).
At Chicago airport, Muna and Fadi find themselves greeted with the same antagonistic reception they confronted every day at the Bank. After enduring a three-hour interrogation, Muna and her son are reunited with her homesick sister Raghda (great Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass), her passive physician husband Nabil (Yussef Abu Warda) and their three daughters – the oldest of whom, 16-year-old Salma (Alia Shawkat, from award-winning TV comedy “Arrested Development ), is an outspoken rebel, slightly torn between the Arabic traditions her mother imposes on her and the American way.
From the moment she sets foot in the US, the stars turn against Muna wherever she goes. In the day of her arrival, she finds out that her box of cookies, where she stored her life savings, has been confiscated by airport authorities.
The cheerful, chubby Muna starts looking for a job in banking, her field of expertise, but ends up being turned down in every interview. She accidently hears Nabil complaining to Raghda of Muna becoming a financial burden on their struggling family. In order to avoid any further degradation, Muna decides to take a job at a branch of burger chain White Castle situated beside the local bank that she pretends to be her workplace.
Fadi, on the other hand, falls victim to the expected racial bullying in high school at a time when anti-Arab sentiment is reaching its peak. Salma attempts to help him fit in while pushing him to stand up to the bullies. Nabil too can’t elude the widespread negative perception of Arabs and starts losing his patience as the friction between him and his defiant wife, who wishes to return back to her homeland, rapidly increases.
Muna and her family continue to encounter more tribulations, yet, in spite of everything, she never loses her innate buoyancy or her faith that things will get better. She forms new relationships with unusual characters, including her nerdy, blue-haired young coworker, her son’s Polish Jewish principle and the bank receptionist, learning to accept both herself and the other.
Winner of this year’s Director’s Fortnight award at the Cannes Film Festival, Dabis film, which is backed by Showtime Arabia, wears its intentions on its sleeve: it’s a mainstream comedy-drama; a crowd-pleaser framed in the form of American indie comedies.
What sets “Amreeka apart from recent non-European immigrant pics like Thomas McCarthy’s “The Visitor (2007) is the tiny details of Arab-American life that Dabis, who grew up in Ohio, gets dead right.
From the fashion tips Fadi receives from his cousins in order not to look like a “FOB (fresh off the boat) and the midnight phone calls from Muna’s mother, making sure she’s safe from an earthquake that shook an entirely different state, to Raghda’s close adherence to the mores of her birthplace and Muna’s insistence that her son goes to medical school, I could personally see my own family in them.
The America of Dabis is a complex place of many contrasts, of prejudice and friendliness, of sparse opportunities and possibility. The most refreshing aspect of “Amreeka is its departure from the ultra grim view that dominates the immigrant film sub-genre.
Yet, especially near the end of the film, Dabis’ overly optimistic worldview occasionally borders on the naive and the whimsical. That’s why “Amreeka never reaches the heights of the neo-realistic works of the great Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart, “Goodbye Solo ) and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Sugar ).
What ultimately protects Muna and her son from the adversity they face in the US is not only their inner strength, but the strong sense of family that remains the biggest asset for most Arab families. As romantic as this notion might seem in these uncertain times, there’s something genuine and compelling about it, qualities coming from a very real place.