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American Independents, Arab Cinema, Canadian Cinema, Melodrama, Palestinian Cinema

Amreeka (US, Canada, Kuwait 2009)

Nisreen Faour as Muna (left) and Hiam Abbass as Raghda

This is a conventional family melodrama with a ‘feelgood’ ending (though a few narrative strands are left open) and plenty of laughs. There is nothing new or surprising about how the film is shot (though the filmmaker cites Mike Leigh and Robert Altman as influences on the camera style) and much of the story is predictable. But . . . everything in the film is enjoyable, it is well acted and ingeniously produced and, most of all, it tells us something about a particular experience for a group not often represented in cinema – Arab-Americans.

‘Amreeka’ is the Arabic for ‘America’ represented here by Illinois during the invasion of Iraq. The story starts in Bethlehem where Muna, the divorced mother of 16 year-old Fadi is struggling to get to her job through the Israeli roadblocks, to pay for son’s private school and look after her demanding mother. One day, unexpectedly, she receives a letter telling her that her application to travel to the US to stay with her sister has been approved. She takes off with Fadi and the narrative outlines how the two of them fare in the ‘land of the free’. Some Americans are surprisingly friendly but a minority treat them like stereotypical ‘terrorists’.

Amreeka is the first feature by writer-director Cherien Dabis who was born in Ohio to Palestinian-Jordanian parents and she has lived in Jordan as well as the US. Many of the scenes are based on her own experiences as a teenager during the first Iraq War. She had previously made a prize-winning short and acted as a writer and co-producer on the TV series The L-Word. Amreeka was possible because of various awards and sponsorship schemes involving film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin and Tribeca. In fact the production acts as a fascinating example of how specialised films manage to get made. Although clearly a low budget production, the cast has a couple of well known faces and the crew is highly experienced. The production eventually came together with final funding from a Kuwaiti company and significant Canadian input. The production included shoots in Ramallah and Chicago but I’m guessing it was the array of ‘soft money’ support from various Canadian sources that prompted the move to Manitoba standing in for small town Illinois. In the production notes on the official website Cherien Dabis tells us that they had no budget to decorate a typical Arab home in North America until they found a family in Winnipeg who had come from Ramallah and who were willing to lend their house for the shoot. They also received support from the White Castle hamburger company who kitted out a set for them – this has the added advantage of linking the film to those popular Asian-American characters Harold and Kumar.

One of the great strengths of the film is the casting of Nisreen Faour, a talented performer from Haifa as Muna. She is hugely engaging and convincing. Cherien Dabis suggests that she is at once childlike but also is able to convey pain and suffering behind her sunny smile. She is ably supported by Melkar Muallem from Jerusalem/Ramallah as Fadi. Hiam Abbass is a familiar face from both American and Israeli/Palestinian films and she plays Muna’s sister perfectly, reigning in the power that makes her so often a formidable presence. Good to see as well is Alia Shawkat who was so impressive in Drew Barrymore’s début as a director, Whip It, made at roughly the same time as Amreeka. Her father is an Iraqi actor and she has spoken about wanting to support Arab-American culture. The other cast members all contribute strongly – though I did feel that the cops in the police station were clearly Canadian not American.

Amreeka often teeters on the edge of predictability but then manages to step back, e.g. the school principal who becomes supportive to Muna almost inevitably announces that he is Polish-Jewish but this turns out to be not such a big deal. The film handles the other religion question quite carefully. We are expecting that Muna and Fadi will be targeted as ‘Muslim terrorists’ but early on there are clues to their Christianity. They come from Bethlehem which makes it possible but Raghda’s crucifix necklace confirms it. The script also has the best ‘occupation joke’ I’ve heard for a while. The film plays with the balance between how difficult life now is on the West Bank but also how difficult it can be in small-town America when the news from Iraq is on every TV screen. Raghda wants to go back to Palestine – she doesn’t understand how it has changed. Muna doesn’t really understand what is happening in America. There’s a lot everyone needs to learn.

Overall I think there is a good balance of ‘comfortable’ and ‘uncomfortable’ moments and it’s a melodrama so the music is good as well. I’m just left wondering why it took so long for Amreeka to reach the UK.

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