Amreeka (2009): Celebrating Palestinian Woman in Warm-Hearted Immigrants Comedy

Cannes Film Fest 2009 (Directors Fortnight)—It’s the particular location, protagonist, and tone, which distinguish Amreeka from the growing body of border stories about immigrants coming to America.

One of the well-received pictures at this this year’s Sundance Film Fest, Amreeka (which takes its name from the Arabic word for “America”), showed at the New Directors/New Films in New York and played at Cannes Film Fest’s Directors Fortnight.  This fest favorite, a warm-hearted comedy, should gain fans when it opens theatrically.

There is a major reason to celebrate: The film marks the feature debut of writer-director Cherien Dabis, a TV writer and producer (“The L Word”) whose parents are Palestinians and thus imbues the film with some personal and insider’s touches.  Not many films are made by women of Arabic descent, let alone Palestinians.

The tale’s heroine is a Palestinian refugee named Muna (Nisreen Faour), a divorcee and single mother who lives with her strong-willed mother and her curious 16-year-old son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) in the town of Bethlehem (previously Jordan, and after 1967, the West Bank under Israel’s occupation), where they perceive themselves as “prisoners in our own country.” 

When first met, Muna works at a bank, but going to work has become a time-consuming ordeal, due to the numerous checkpoints and other humiliating conditions of daily life in the Israeli occupied territory of Palestine.  However, opportunity for change and formal education for Fadi knocks, when Muna gets green card, and she and her son Fadi emigrate to the U.S., settling in a suburban community in Illinois with Muna’s sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass) and her doctor husband Nabeel (Yussef Abu Warda), who raise three children.

Context is crucial: the movie is set in 2003, just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which explains the ignorance of most Americans about Arabs and Muslims and the stereotypes they hold of them.  In fact, some of Nabeel’s regular patients don’t want to be treated by him.

At school, Fadi suffers taunting and bullying, and it takes his tougher, American-born cousin Salma (Alia Shawkat) to teach him a lesson or two about how to survive the high-school ordeal.  Muna also experiences downward mobility, when she is forced to take a menial job at White Castle since none of the banks will hire her; thus, she tries to keep her job as secret.

As noted, the gentle, warm tone makes this picture closer to fables such as Tom McCarthy’s “The Visitor,” Spielberg’s “The Terminal” and Peter Weir’s “Green Card” than to the harrowing, more realistic tales, such as Gregory Nava’s “El Norte,” or the more recent “Sin Nombre.”

For example, the scene in which Muna and Fadi are detained at the Chicago airport is depicted as a series of errors and misunderstanding, rather than overt or latent manifestation of racism. Muna had naively wrapped their seed money of $2,500 in a cookie tin, which is confiscated by the Customs Authprity, leaving them utterly broke.

This is an immigrants’ saga in which most characters are nice and friendly, not hostile, menacing or violent.  The school principal  (Joseph Ziegler), a kind Jewish man, becomes friends to the family and takes personal liking to Muna.  And Muna’s peer at White Castle (Brodie Sanderson) is willing to help in any way he can.

At this phase, Cherien Dabis is not a particularly sharp writer and her cross-cultural plot with its emphasis on the “fish out of water” theme, is too simplistic and general.  Dabis goes out of her way to avoid overt political arguments or any other inflammatory issue, instead stressing the humane and universal aspects of her yarn.

As the resilient, good-hearted heroine of “Amreeka,” Nisreen Faour turns in an enormously charismaic turn, which makes it easier to like the picture and disreagrd its various weaknesses.

Shooting in Ramallah and Manitoba lends “Amreeka” a rather authentic look and energetic feel, magnified by the use of popular Arabic tunes on the soundtrack.

Cast

Nisreen Faour
Melkar Muallem
Hiam Abbass
Yussef Abu-Warda
Joseph Ziegler
Alia Shawkat.


Credits

An E1 Films Canada, Maximum Films Intl. (Canada)/Cinergy Prods. (U.S.) presentation, in association with Rotana Studios and Showtime Arabia, of a First Generation Films, Alcina Pictures, Buffalo Gal Pictures (Canada)/Eagle Vision Media Group (Kuwait) production.
Sales: William Morris Agency.
Produced by Christina Piovesan, Paul Barkin.
Co-producers, Liz Jarvis, Al-Zain Al-Sabah.
Executive producers, Alicia Sams, Cherien Dabis.
Directed, written by Cherien Dabis.
Camera, Tobias Datum.
Editor, Keith Reamer.
Music, Kareem Roustom; music supervisor, Doug Bernheim.
Production designer, Aidan Leroux; art director, Laura Souter; set decorator, Scott Rossell.
Costume designer, Patricia J. Henderson.
Assistant director, David Antoniuk.
Sound, Brock Capell.
Casting, Ellyn Long Marshall, Maria E. Nelson.

Running time: 95 Minutes.