Amreeka (2009) dir Cherian Dabis
Starring: Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat
By Alan Bacchus
A Sundance and Cannes success, this multi-pronged international co-production indie has seen great success in a very competitive market. The title which means, simply America in Arabic, reflects the real life internal and external conflicts of writer/director Cherian Dabis, who as a second generation American in her youth, felt lost with a national identity split between her American home and her Arabic roots. Dabis’ makes up for manipulative and contrived conflict with a palpable emotional honesty and cinematic integrity.
Meek and innocent Muna (Nisreen Faour), a Palestinian mother living in the West Bank, feels like a foreigner in her own country. She takes shit in her job as a bank administrator and on her drive home everyday has to go through the daily humiliation of having her car searched at the military checkpoints.
Dabis doesn’t need to get into the details of Middle East politics or even show any bias for us to believe that this is reality. Discrimination extends within her own religion and culture as well. She has a sour relationship with her husband, a man whom she still feels accountable to even though he freely runs around with other women - a right seemingly afforded to him by the nature of his gender. Dabis’ observational/social realist visual style immediately puts us in the shoes of a Palestinian woman.
Muna’s eureka moment occurs when her teenage son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) receives acceptance into an American exchange program. The story thus switches to the U.S. depicting Muna’s new struggles to adapt to another foreign society and a different kind of discrimination. Unfortunately the genuine and inspired realism wanes when the narrative starts to get propped up with familiar story plotting.
Muna bunks with her sister Raghda and her Americanized children near Chicago. Immediately Fadi, her son, gets picked on by local school bullies, Muna’s finds more covert discrimination in her search for a job, even her own family who feels the financial stress of Muna and Fadi’s stay starts to resent her. Muna settles for a menial job at White Castle, and while embarrassed at first, she eventually reconciles her expectations with reality and comes to realize that the American dream is not a handout and must be earned.
I’ve discussed this in my feature of Social Realism in the 2000’s and Amreeka’s observational, naturalistic style falls right in line with this prevailing movement of the decade. What seems so easy and natural is difficult to pull off. As mentioned above Muna’s plight in Israel/Palestine is established with acute precision. While there’s genuine honesty and sympathy to the story there’s uneven mixture of superficiality and surprising unsophisticatedness. Many of the key second act conflicts rely heavily on clichéd situations and relationships. Amreeka’s naïveté with American culture rings false. Her confusion with the scrutiny at airport customs is overplayed and the way she loses her money at the airport (which turns out to be the key plot point in the film) is a shamefully artificial contrivance. Muna even seems to be ignorant to the idea of fashion, as she's inexplicably confused when Fadi's new cousin chides Fadi for having ‘pleated pants’ in his closet. At one point Muna asks ‘How far is Disneyland?’ Do they not have internet or maps on the West Bank? With the global connectedness these days, the fascination with Disneyland as the romanticized American institution is an anachronistic ideal.
And so it’s the honesty of newcomers, Nisreen Faour and Melkar Muallem, which hoists the picture up past the false and contrived moments. Muallem, despite this being his first film, is a natural in front of the camera. And Faour’s round face and unpolished lumbering gate comes off with the same sympathetic naturalism as Vittorio De Sica’s real world casting in ‘The Bicycle Thief’.
And so, I’m of two minds with ‘Amreeka’ – it’s a noble and admirable effort which wears its heart on its sleeve, but without hitting all the beats as authentic and natural is it needs to elevate this film to high cinematic art.
“Amreeka” opens in theatres in Canada via E1 Entertainment on Oct 30