Directed by Cherien Dabis. Starring Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Alia Shawkat, Daniel Boiteau, Jenna Kawar, Selena Haddad. (2009, PG-13, 96 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 25, 2009
Too often in these paranoid and partisan times, we tend to lose sight of our own immigrant roots. Worse, we ignore or forget, to our shame as citizens of the country and sometimes-believers in the improbable dream that is America, the idealistic firmament of our nation. Not for nothing did the French (of all people) gift us with Lady Liberty. The statue officially marks the centennial of the Declaration of Independence but has come to mean far more in the global context: a mammoth metal assemblage and spiritual icon, the figurative "mother of exiles" forever welcoming the tired, the poor, the wretched, the homeless, and the tempest-tossed to a presumably better land. Still they come, future forefathers and mothers and sons. The more recent tide of Middle Eastern arrivals is the subject of Jordanian-American filmmaker Dabis' delightfully human and sweetly comic ode to the contemporary immigrant experience in a post-9/11 “Amreeka.” Muna (Faour) is a single mother (and non-pious Muslim) living in the Palestinian territory with her teenage son, Fadi (Muallem), while working as an accountant – a job that daily forces her to cross high-tension, high-caliber Israeli checkpoints to and from her work. A completely unexpected stroke of good fortune nets her a U.S. green card. ("How did this happen?" the amazed Fadi asks his mother. "I applied for it ages ago. I had forgotten about it entirely!" is her equally bewildered answer.) In short order, the dream comes true, and they arrive in America with plans to stay with her sister in Illinois. The Department of Homeland Security has other ideas (the film is set in 2003 during the American invasion of Iraq). As a Palestinian, Muna is without a country, and when a humorless DHS official asks what her occupation is, she earnestly, uncomprehendingly, and poignantly replies that yes, they are "occupied" and have been for 40 years. More humiliations and confusions follow, but Amreeka's overall tone – Dabis is working from her own script – is no coming-to-America nightmare. It's a more gentle, hopeful farce, as Muna's pre-existing ideas about life in America are challenged by the exasperatingly mundane realities and cultural land mines specific to those newly arrived from Muslim un-countries. Seeking a banking position worthy of her not-inconsiderable skills, Muna instead ends up slinging sliders at a White Castle. Teenage Fadi finds friendship with a younger female cousin – cue Palestinian vs. American fashion gags – and anti-Arab xenophobia is rampant. Every immigrant story is unique, and often darkly shaded by stranger-in-a-strange-land tropes, but despite Muna and Fadi's travails, Amreeka is anything but a depressing digression on American wartime paranoia. Dabis, who penned much of the script from personal experience gleaned firsthand while living in the U.S. during the Gulf War, makes Amreeka into a celebration of newfound possibilities and second chances. Faour, in an Oscar-worthy performance, renders Muna in shades of love and hope; she has no time for bitterness or regret or fear. And why would she? She's finally home.