Starring Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallen, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Yussef Abu Warda and Joseph Ziegler. Written and directed by Cherien Dabis.
Rated M (drug use and coarse language). 96 mins.
Although 20 years have passed since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, walls still divide people one from another, not least in the Middle East where the ancient feud between Ishmael and Isaac seems as intractable as ever. Full marks then to Cherien Dabis, of Palestinian-Jordanian parentage, whose accomplished first feature Amreeka sheds sympathetic light on this conflict, and guardedly offers a solution.
Amreeka begins in the West Bank in the Palestinian Territories in 2002, when Muna Farah (Nisreen Farah), having just picked up her teenage son Fadi (Melkar Faour) from school, is waiting in choked traffic to be waved through yet another checkpoint on their way home to Bethlehem.
On this day, Fadi’s defiant altercation with a young Israeli soldier and glimpses of the wall being built to separate the West Bank from Israel, are not Muna’s only worry and concern. The daughter of a loving but controlling mother and sole parent to Fadi since the breakdown of her marriage, Muna works hard in a bank to afford Fadi’s private school fees, and make ends meet.
When at the end of this hard day she then opens a letter announcing that she and Fadi have been accepted for permanent residence in America (in Arabic Amreeka), Muna is torn between elation, fear and pre-emptive homesickness.
Initially, what Muna and Fadi experience as new immigrants in America is not so very different to what migrants endure in a foreign culture everywhere.
Arriving in a small town in Illinois, Muni and Fadi are welcomed with open arms by Muna’s sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass, Conversations With My Gardener, Paradise Now, Lemon Tree), who emigrated to the US fifteen years before with her husband Nabeel (Yussef Abu-Warda), who is a prosperous family doctor.
Fadi attends the local high school, and is spared the worst of knee-jerk hostility to newcomers because of the forceful intervention of his confident, rebellious cousin Salma (Alia Shawkat). Muna, desperately short of money because of a mishap at the airport on their arrival, finds herself locked out of banking because of her immigrant status, and is forced to find work in a fast food café – a humiliating ignominy that she keeps secret from her family.
It is only when the Iraq War begins that Muna and her family really come face to face with the ugly underbelly of American wartime patriotism and bigotry.
Amreeka was inspired by the personal experiences of Cherien Dabis’ own family, and crucial to the storyline is Muna and her family being Arab-Christians, who are proud of their lineage and history, but open to cross-cultural contact.
This memorably and understatedly forms the basis for the friendship struck up between the buoyant and optimistic Muna (based on Dabis’ aunt), and Mr Novatski (Joseph Ziegler), Fadi’s kindly but more reserved Jewish-American teacher.
Sharmill Out 19th November
Warm and observant, with just the right mix of humour and realism, Amreeka ticks all the right boxes associated with idiosyncratic, very well-made ‘small features’. What sets it apart however is Cherien Dabis’ dextrous ability to topple stereotypes and explore without false hope or preaching, the possibility even in the fratricidal Middle East, of living in harmony.
Sharmill Out 19th November
Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.