Film review – Amreeka (2009)

Muna (Nisreen Faour) and Fadi (Melkar Muallem)

Muna Farah is a divorced Palestinian woman dealing with the increasing daily frustrations of living in the West Bank. It is 2003, the year America invaded Iraq, and Muna is fed up with the daily border checks and the realisation that there is little future for her gifted and sensitive teenage son Fadi. When Muna gets the chance to immigrate to the United States with Fadi she takes it and moves in with her sister’s family, who have been living in America for 15 years. Despite her qualifications and experience working for a bank, Muna has to take a job at a fast food restaurant. Meanwhile, Fadi starts to question their relocation after he becomes the target of racial taunts at school.

Making her feature film debut, the writer/director Cherien Dabis has created a gentle film that ultimately expresses that always-refreshing idea that no matter what part of the world we are from, we’re not so different to one another. However, there is a slight nagging feeling that Dabis has made Muna and her family too uncomplicated in Amreeka. Dabis’s script repeatedly reminds us that Muna and Fadi are neither from Iraq or Afghanistan, that they “waited in line” to legally come to America and that they are not even Muslim. While these character traits and narrative strands do help to draw attention to the stupidity and unfairness of the increasingly overt racism they experience, it also somewhat dilutes the overall power of the film’s acceptance message. No doubt Dabis’s aim is to show the diversity of Arabic identity but having her characters conform so strongly to what some conservative voices may ignorantly regard as ‘good immigrants’ softens the blow unnecessarily.

Raghda (Hiam Abbass) and Muna (Nisreen Faour)

On the other hand, one of the biggest sins a film critic can commit is judging a film not for what it is but by what that critic felt is should have been so perhaps let’s simply regard Amreeka on its own merits as a warm and humane film about family, hope and overcoming adversity. The relationship between Muna and Fadi is very sweet and respective actors Nisreen Faour and Melkar Muallem both bring to the screen an extremely likeable presence. The strong supporting cast includes star-on-the-rise Alia Shawkat (television’s Arrested Development, Whip It) as Fadi’s cousin Salma and the always mesmerising Hiam Abbass (Lemon Tree, The Visitor, Paradise Now) as Muna’s sister Raghda. Judging from the delighted responses coming from the Palestinian audience members in the cinema during the advance public screening of Amreeka, it is safe to assume that it is a film that humorously and affectionately represents the dynamic in Palestinian families. However, it is a film made for a wider global audience and all audiences will find much to enjoy from this simple yet pleasing film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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