Directed by Cherien Dabis
Screenplay by Cherien Dabis
There is an obvious correlation between the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the rise in Islamaphobia across the United States. Arabs (or anyone Arab-looking) who had already established their lives in the States before that year suddenly found themselves the target of racial prejudice, and those who would immigrate shortly after would be subjected to the same kind of treatment. In Amreeka (the Arabic word for America) we follow a single Palestinian mother, Muna (Nisreen Faour), and her teenage son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) as they embark on a life-altering journey from the confines of Palestine to the wide open spaces of rural Chicago in March 2003. After winning the Green Card lottery and weighing the pros and cons of such an important move, they eventually travel halfway across the world and into the home of Raghda’s family, Muna’s highly Americanized sister.
The result is not quite what Muna expected. America isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be: the fact that she can’t find a decent job because of her ethnic background is reminiscent of her daily struggles with the Israeli border guards who would often belittle her. Her son’s integration within the American high school system isn’t any smoother, as he is automatically demonized for being Middle Eastern, and even jokingly asked “not to blow the school up”. It is very difficult for him to gain any respect in an overwhelmingly ‘pro-troops’ environment.
The animosity they both face is loosely based on the experiences of rookie director Cherien Dabis, who assembles an interesting cast of character actors for these roles. Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) is also featured and it turns out that she is actually half-Iraqi: she takes Fadi under her wing and attempts to instill some American values in him. The film’s authenticity is conveyed by the interactions these characters have, but especially between Muna, Fadi and the Americans they encounter. Furthermore half the movie is shot in Arabic, which is very effective at showing how the characters really feel whenever they use it in an English setting. More often than not it is used to lament about the current state of things, which really makes you empathize with the characters.
The movie has no political agenda, although the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is portrayed in a certain light, but rather aims to establish the hardships that Muna and Fadi can’t seem to escape, and to make us realize that under the skin we’re all exactly the same. The resilience they exhibit is quite commendable and their capacity to adapt in a foreign, hostile environment puts a feel-good spin on an otherwise morose story. There are several comedic moments thrown into the mix, which mostly involve Muna learning about American culture. My favorite scenes involve her asking the simplest questions to random strangers, i.e. “You would like to lose weight, wouldn’t you?” or “Why is your hair blue?” Her curiosity and broken English make her an extremely likeable character, and one that you find yourself rooting for by the second half of the movie.
If anything, Amreeka serves to remind us of the far-reaching implications of American mass media, and the stereotypes that are propagated through it. It’s also a fascinating insight into the transition experienced by millions of people who land on North American shores every year, and who face an uphill battle as soon as they “get off the boat”. This movie had a considerable effect on me and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in culture and social dynamics.
– Myles Dolphin