Film review - Amreeka

Cherien Dabis’ bittersweet film follows the fortunes of Muna (Nisreen Faour), a single, divorced mother, who lives in the West Bank with her teenage son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem).

The opening scenes of Amreeka (Arabic for ‘America’) show Muna and her son having to endure regular military checkpoints on her daily commute to work in a bank. Tobias Datum shoots these scenes through the rear view mirror and dusty windscreen of Muna’s car, giving a distancing effect. When Muna and Fadi are stopped and questioned at the checkpoints, Datum’s handheld camera heightens their sense of dislocation. It is a humiliating daily ritual and, as Muna resignedly points out, they are effectively “prisoners” in their own country.

So when Muna receives her green card, she decides join her sister Raghda (Melkar Muallem), doctor husband, Nabeel (Yussef Abu Warda), and their three daughters in Illinois. But on arrival, Muna fares little better. Mother and son are detained for hours by airport immigration; their discomfort magnified by the glass barrier through which they are interrogated.

Muna later discovers that the biscuit tin in which she had hidden her savings has been confiscated by custom’s officials. So after Fadi is accepted in the local high school, Muna sets out to find a job. To her dismay, she discovers that her two degrees count for nothing in the US and the only thing on offer for a newly arrived immigrant is work in The White Castle, a local hamburger joint.

The year is 2003 and the US is about to invade Iraq. Already racist tensions are simmering away and gradually the close family unit begins to show signs of strain. Fadi is bullied at school, Nabeel’s doctor’s practice is suffering with patients leaving in droves, the family start to receive hate mail, and Muna has to invest in a credit card to help pay her way.

Muna refuses to be disheartened and takes comfort in the small kindnesses that are shown to them. Fadi’s Polish-Jewish headmaster (also an immigrant of sorts) befriends Muna and provides valuable support when Fadi gets into trouble, and her oddball co-workers (also outsiders) at the White Castle come to her rescue when she has an accident.

Dabis has crafted a poignant drama, based on her own experiences as a Palestinian-Jordanian growing up in rural America. In just 90 minutes, she deftly explores big themes - alienation, cultural identity, and a sense of belonging - carefully detailing the immigrant experience. While Amreeka may not offer any easy answers, Dabis underlines the importance of family and eloquently illustrates the effects that a disintegrating sense of community has on ordinary lives.

Although tested to her limits Muna’s good humour prevails, and it is her remarkable resilience that provides a small glimmer of hope in Amreeka’s surprisingly abrupt and open-ended conclusion.

Originally published by Cine-Vue