The coming to America story is the story of Hollywood itself – it was founded by Jewish refugees escaping the pogroms of Europe – but it is a story that has seldom been told with such subtle insight as in Amreeka, a film by Palestinian-American writer/director Cherien Dabis.
Made by the daughter of immigrants from the West Bank and Jordan, the narrative of Amreeka (the Arabic word for America) is informed by Dabis’ experiences growing up in Ohio and dealing with the racism toward the Arabic community that erupted with the dawn of the Gulf War and only worsened after 9/11.
It tells the story of Muna (Nisreen Faour), a single mother who works in a bank in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Her commute from Bethlehem involves passing through a checkpoint where she and her 16-year-old son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) are degraded on a daily basis by armed guards.
Then one day, out of the blue, the Amreekeya Dream comes in the mail. Green cards, applied for when her skirt-chasing husband was still in the picture, provide escape from the violence of their homeland. In a marvelous shot, Fadi sticks his head out the window of the car, gazing at the arid desertscapes that will soon turn into the rows of cookie-cutter houses of Midwestern America.
Fadi and Muna move in with her sister’s family in suburban Illinois, where she soon learns the alarming truth that the educational degrees and overseas work experience of non-European immigrants are seldom honored by American employers. She applies all over town but is forced to take a job flipping burgers at White Castle, although she pitifully tells her family that she found work in a bank and has her sister drop her off at the bank entrance next door to the burger palace each morning.
Fadi, meanwhile, is mercilessly ridiculed and bullied by his classmates, who call him “Osama” and write “Al Kada” (sic) on his cousin’s car. He’s thrown in jail after defending his mother’s honor in a fistfight, where police try to hold him overnight because he’s a supposed terror threat, even though charges have been dropped.
Dabis quietly shows the effects of ignorant racism, as Muna’s brother-in-law, a physician, finds his practice suffering merely because he’s Arabic, or in the movie’s best scene, when Muna explains to Fadi’s principal (with whom she will begin a touching relationship) the irony that she is persecuted in her own country because she’s not Muslim, but is persecuted in America because everyone thinks she’s Muslim.
Dabis’ directing style is functional and unassuming, her writing concise and humanistic. Amreeka is an impressive feature debut: the first statement of an important new female voice in American cinema.
Amreeka will be screened on Wednesday, March 24 at 4:15 PM, and Thursday, March 25 at 8:30 PM at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier as part of the Green Mountain Film Festival.