New Directors/New Films Opening Night: Immigrating to Amreeka
Writer/director Cherien Dabis’s debut feature, Amreeka, opens into a chaotic world of handheld shots depicting heavy traffic, heavy noise, and above all, heavy heat. This beginning strikes me, but it doesn’t shock me: this world is in Palestine. More disquieting is the fact that the film remains just as shaky when it moves to the United States; the main difference after the shift is that everything becomes cold.
Difficult to classify as comedy or drama, the film is successful for all the times it makes the audience wince, and for all the times it makes them laugh; it’s exceptional for all the times it makes them do both. For me, what more than anything else captures my empathy and inspires this range of emotions is Nisreen Faour’s committed, comedic, and endearing performance as Muna Farah. When Muna discreetly reveals a uniform for the White Castle next door to the bank where she claims to have found a job, I definitely laugh, but it isn’t painless laughter. I know that Muna is qualified to work at the bank, and moreover I love her bright-eyed smile, and the beautiful way she speaks English. The Muna that Faour creates is, in spite of a harrowing life, so authentically good-hearted and hopeful that I cringe at the idea of anything spoiling her hopes, especially in the country that I call home.
The most embarrassing part of this film is the ignoble ignorance of the white students who go to a World Politics class with Muna’s son Fadi (Melkar Muallem). They refuse to yield their prejudices, which equate Fadi with Al Qaeda, in spite of Fadi’s obvious good nature, and his cousin’s articulate retorts to their stupid comments. There are a lot of open-minded and helpful white characters in the movie, but I still recoil as I realize that this portrait of Illinois high school students might be very accurate to some.
Amreeka in the end leaves us with a lot of hope, if not closure. Its ultimate message, that you shouldn’t be ashamed of who you are, is simple and a bit used, but perhaps impossible to repeat too much.