Monday, February 01, 2010


Searching for a welcome mat

By Edward Copeland
When some films end, it's hard to tell if the filmmakers have stopped at that point on purpose, leaving the viewer wanting more, or if they should have condensed earlier portions of the movie because they've arrived at the most interesting part and you really want to see what happens next. That's the case with writer-director Cherien Dabis' Amreeka, an enjoyable film in either case but one in which I can't help but think could have been even better.

Amreeka is the Arabic way of referring to America and as the film opens, single, nonreligious Palestinian mom Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour) is growing weary of the increased Israeli checkpoints she and son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) have to navigate each day so she can get to her job at a bank and he get to a school in Israel. They aren't activists of any kind — just two people caught up in the tense situation between their home in the Palestinian territory and their duties in Israel.

One day, a letter arrives, showing the Farahs they have hit the lottery, the visa lottery that is, and they make plans to emigrate to the United States to live in Illinois with Muna's sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass, so good as the mother in The Visitor) and her husband Nabeel (Yussuf Abu-Warda), a successful doctor, and their three children (the oldest daughter played by Alia Shawkat from Arrested Development).

Unfortunately, things don't go smoothly from the moment they arrive at O'Hare Airport, which happens to coincide with the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, so any Arab-looking arrivals earn extra scrutiny — three hours worth. While some security are questioning Muna, others ask Fadi about some wrapped cookie tins. The teen tries to get his mother's attention, but she brushes Fadi off, so the boy just lets the security confiscate the tins, unaware that his mom had hidden their entire savings inside.

Except for her obsession with her weight (which she blames as the reason her husband left her for another woman), Muna is an eternal optimist, though her sunny disposition is tested by the times and situations she finds in the small Illinois town. Well qualified to work in a bank in Israel, she felt she'd have no problem stepping into a similar job in the U.S., but either by lack of openings or racial suspicions, no one will hire her and she ends up at a White Castle, which she hides from her family by having her sister drop her off and pick her up at the bank next door and saying she works there.

Fadi doesn't have much better luck at his new school, where the dunderheads can't distinguish a Palestinian from any other Arab and assumes they are all terrorists-in-training anyway, sparking a fight that lands him in the principal's office, though the principal is a refreshingly understanding man (Joseph Ziegler).

Meanwhile, as Nabeel's once-thriving practice loses so many patients hesitant to see an Arab doctor, he starts facing financial troubles paying the mortgage on the house while he becomes more obsessed with the war in Iraq and his wife dreams of returning home, though Muna tells her how much worse things have grown in the 15 years since she left the Palestinian territories.

It sounds as if all this would make Amreeka one downer of a film, but it's not, thanks mainly to Faour's performance as Muna. Her smile is infectious and she's bursting with sunshine most of the time except when she does get mad, so it's difficult for her spirit not to infect you as well. There's also the beginning of an interesting friendship, and perhaps more, between Muna and the principal, who turns out to come from an ethnic background of Polish Jews, but just as you think this might be played out, that's when the movie comes to its end.

Writer-director Dabis left me wanting more, but I think she spent too much time on the early stuff and deprived us of some really fascinating developments that I for one would like to have seen. The film ends on a happy note of dining and dancing and while it's a feel-good ending, there are still problems remaining for the characters and perhaps hopeful signs as well and I felt it was a bit of a cheat not to have gone a little further. Still, what is there, particularly Faour's work, is good enough to make Amreeka worthwhile.


I think the movie is really marvelous to show the cultural shock of an individual that comes from an inclusive society to an individualistic society, in which the values of hope, family and honor are constantly colliding against intolerance, fear and consumerism. But even when in the end the film has a sweet aftertaste, still the beginning uses strong stereotypes of American racism and intolerance that, generally speaking, are rare. This film could have exploited more the realistic feel by avoiding the use of "evil" characters and instead using roles that displayed ignorance and fear.
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