There are a plethora of films which recount the arrival of distinct ethnic groups to America, ranging from the Eddie Murphy’s pathetic Coming to America to the Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Immigrant to the Patricia Riggen’s subtle Under The Same Moon or Jim Sheridan’s In America. However, no situation seems as tense as the arrival of visible minority immigrants to the United States post-9/11, where tense circumstances await them.
Amreeka is a the debut feature-length film by Cherien Dabis, named by Variety magazine as one of its “Ten Directors to Watch” this year, and we can indeed look forward to her next feature length film if her first is any measure of her talent. Dabis has worked in television, writing for Showtime’s The L Word and has also written and directed several award-winning short films. In Amreeka, Dabis’ writing underscores the subtleties of one who has bridged many cultures at once, a personal insight that she most likely gained during her childhood and adolescence in both the U.S. and Jordan, and as the daughter of Palestinian parents.
Dabis’ film questions the differences between the uneasy racial situation as it exists in the United States and the situation lived by the Palestinians in the Occupied territories. Nisreen Faour, a talented Palestinian theatre and television actress, is exceptional as the mother in this film; it is she who negotiates the departure for the United States with her son, the very promising young Melkar Muallem in his first movie role. Hiam Abbass, a famous international actress whom readers might recognize from such Hollywood blockbusters as Munich and Babel, is ever-talented in the role of the sister who has been living in the United States with her doctor husband and raising three girls.
Part of the film’s brilliance is that it is meant to unsettle viewers at various levels—Dabis often uses humour as her weapon. Whether it is in the encounters (at Israeli checkpoints, at the U.S. customs, during a job interview with a racist or in the visual of the Mom in her fast food uniform), in the stereotypes (the mom’s naivety, the fresh-off-the boat clothing debate, the terrorists) or in the general melodrama, there are many cringe-worthy moments. One circumstance that personally made me cower was the weight of gender in the mother-son relationship, especially in the film which has been touted as the story of an “indomitable” single mom who makes it on her own. There are a few condescending moments when the son patronizingly pats his mother’s shoulder during her hopelessness, saves the day by lending her money, and makes her believe in a paternalistic way that everything will be alright.
Sadly, the film does not seem to imply that the general condition of immigrants in the U.S. will evolve for the better. There are brief flashes of “openness” in the mom’s male friend, her dropout co-worker from the fast-food joint, and the lady at the bank who finally gets her a credit card (the American dream!). However, in the final scene, the family unit folds back into itself (with the male friend) and drives from the fast-food drive through to a Palestinian restaurant in Chicago to enjoy a blissful “traditional” meal, complete with hookah and dancing. In this turn of events, Dabis’ symbol is not lost; the errant Palestinians make their own mini-homelands wherever they may be, no matter how hostile their environment.
_Review by Sophie M. Lavoie_