Reviews » Amreeka
Amreeka and the Challenge of bringing Palestine to American Audiences
Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka is a nice film. Nice, of course, is a flexible, ambiguous word and I employ it for just that reason. It is a nice film, for one, because it is the type of movie most viewers will like. It features good, hard-working people struggling to get by in a new country and ends with a musically enhanced ethnic dinner scene that attests to the fact that, for all its problems, America has a lot to offer
The characters’ triumphs feel deserved, with the viewer having witnessed enough well-rendered tough times that watching a few, somewhat trite concluding minutes of good falafel and good friends seems like the least we could do for them.. In the tradition of immigrant films ranging from I Remember Mama to An American Tale to In America, Amreeka is ultimately a story about newcomers who eventually figure it out despite the challenges. For American art-house moviegoers, a group perhaps predisposed to a certain level of generalized liberal guilt, it is, indeed, a nice thing to watch.
It is also a nice film, however, in that it is restrained, even merciful. It opens in Bethlehem, West Bank, providing a vivid, stereotype-bending portrayal of life in the Palestinian Territories. Muna, a single mother with a comically endearing weight problem, lives, on the one hand, a middle class life with a pleasant job and a quirky live-in mother. There is, however, the omnipresent Other Hand of Occupation, represented in brief, calm scenes of passport checking and steely Israeli military personal. The soldiers, however, are not portrayed as particularly villainous, even if their actions are presented as, at best, paranoid and, at worst, deeply prejudiced. When Muna and Fadi win the US green card lottery out the blue, the story demands something to compel them to leave their homes in search for something better in suburban Illinois. At this point Dabis could have swung for the fences, or at least the Separation Wall, conjuring a scene in which all of the violence and degradation of life under occupation explodes before the viewer’s likely sympathetic eyes. Instead, however, she refuses to overplay her hand. Fadi is asked to step out of the car at a checkpoint and, for no justifiable reason, is forced to pull up his shirt so a soldier can inspect him. This is a humiliating moment for sure and one that constitutes the sort of incident that might well scare a sensitive mom into moving across the world. Yet, it is not nearly as violent or angry as it could have been. Amreeka’s picture of occupation is a sad, resigned one that might seem too kind for those with more radical sensibilities, but works for Dabis’ story, in which the thought of returning home must remain a constant possibility for Muna and Fadi. It is also an approach that lets the characters, not their political resonances, control the remainder of the story.
The film also plays nice with America, even as it attempts to critique the Islamophobia that emerged alongside of the nation’s post 9/11 flag waving. By and large Amreeka lets America off the hook by breaking down its citizens into Good and Bad patriots, while more or less ignoring the structural elements that allowed (encouraged?) its citizens to move from justified anger at the terrorists to racially motivated hatred of Arabs. On the bad side of the coin are Fadi’s Aryan-looking classmates, whose jingoistic opinions are cruel, intolerant and unapologetically violent. They call Fadi a terrorist for no reason beyond the obvious one and abuse Muna at work simply because they can. They are the bad apples that, while undeniably rotten, don’t constitute enough evidence to start chopping down the tree. In contrast stands an ethnically diverse set of sensitive liberals who support Muna and Fadi, representing all that’s right with the American dream. Muna even acquires a Jewish friend and potential romantic interest, the ultimate testament to the power of the Melting Pot as well as the film’s wholehearted opposition to anti-Semitism. Some will find this relationship cute and charming, others will recoil at a Palestinian women’s utter reliance on a polite Jewish guy’s kindness in order to keep her life together. A third group may simply find it a cynical attempt at industry friend making. None would be wrong. But there also is a sense of kindness and optimism that, while perhaps not particularly politically incisive, is a strong mark of old-fashioned American filmmaking prowess. Dabis, a first time director, may not be able to fully control the political reactions to her film (who could?), but she certainly knows how to tell a story.
Amreeka’s niceness is, I believe, in part a result of the vast pressures facing any film that wishes to address a broad audience while also doing justice to the specific, urgent and infinitely complex situation of the Palestinian people. Stories about Israel and Palestine inevitably attract viewers and critics inclined to read texts exclusively in terms of their use-value to their side’s political platform. Justice, from this sort of perspective, demands a sort of harshness and lack of nuance that sits at best uneasily with the conventions of mainstream narrative filmmaking. In Amreeka, Dabis wants to tell a mainstream story in which her Palestinian characters are nuanced people and not mere political metaphors. They are, quite often, people who articulate political arguments in the script, but the filmmaker refuses to reduce them to stand-ins for ideologies. This may strike some as a missed political opportunity, but it is also admirable attempt to break the media cycle in which Palestinians are so often reduced to statistics and mere symbols of either suffering or brave resistance. Amreeka’s characters are these things, but they are also much more.
The best example of this balance is found in the character of Salma, played by Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat. Salma is a strong, first generation Palestinian-American working through her emerging political radicalism in the face of post 9/11 prejudice. In a moment that stands out from the film’s general tendency towards restraint, she puts forth a proud, if somewhat thin, defense of terrorism as a justified response to occupation. It is a perspective that the film needs to represent, but also one that it cannot afford to linger on. As brief as Salma’s argument is, it is something that runs the risk of overwhelming the remainder of her character. This is particularly true for American audiences who would be likely to understand her statement as much as a defense of the hijackers as Palestinian suicide bombers. In any case, being “pro-terror” even for a moment in an American film is very dangerous business. Dabis’ script and Shawkat’s performance, however, provide adequate nuance to keep Salma’s stance against occupation central to her self-definition without simply reducing her character to a political mouthpiece. More than anything, Salma is an interesting, multi-dimensional American teen, who, in addition to being politically active, also wants to spend a good deal of time getting high and making out with her boyfriend. This emphasis on the individual at the expense of her revolutionary struggle smacks of lightweight neo-liberalism perhaps, but it also a puts human face on a vilified political perspective. The commercial demands of the film and its potential impact on Dabis’ future career options (now looking quite bright I’d say) certainly limit what can and cannot be said in it, but the script is sophisticated enough to keep both its integrity and its audience.
And although the script reserves hardline politics for Salma, the film’s two lead characters provide even stiffer challenges for their actors. Nisreen Fahour, a relative unknown, plays Muna with an admirable range of emotions that quite nicely reflect her character’s liminal position. She has an obvious gift for comedy and her performance is at the very heart of the film’s appeal to the more general themes of the alienation and optimism inherent in being foreign. Dabis does Fahour a considerable favor in providing her a running gag about Muna’s inability to stick to her diet. It’s something of a cliché but it’s also the perfect entry point for a viewer with reservations about truly identifying with a character who has moved across the world to extricate her family from a life of considerable struggle and constant indignity. If you have just paid twelve dollars to see an Indie feature then Muna’s plight may seem a bit removed. Her pain at passing up that second pastry, however, does not. Fahour ably uses this hook to lead the viewer into the more complex elements of her character’s psychological and social lives.
The most complex role in the film is the young Fadi, played by newcomer Melkar Muallem. Fadi’s character is one that brings with it a considerable burden of representation, as he portrays both a young Palestinian male in the Occupied Territories and an Arab immigrant in Western society during the era of the War on Terror. Both of these demographics are routinely vilified in both news and popular fictional media. Muallem’s challenge is thus ample and he acquits himself nicely, succeeding primarily in portraying the ways in which strength and profound insecurity can vacillate so quickly, particularly among the young. There are moments in which he seems inexperienced and unsure as an actor, but there is also a sense of sincerity in the performance that makes it impossible not to root for him. Had the script truly concentrated on Fadi, as opposed to Muna, there would have been more time to develop the complexity of his place in the world but as it is Muallem does well with the opportunity presented to him.
In some ways it is difficult to believe this film got made at all, given the political landmines on which it sits and the considerable expense that the quality of its production suggestions. The movie’s primary economic function is likely as a calling card film for its director, one that will ultimately allow her to move on to bigger and perhaps more profitable projects. Dabis is an up and coming figure who has had some Hollywood success already writing for Showtime’s The L Word. There is no doubt that this experience helped her navigate the perilous terrain that her script covers. It is a story with teeth, but, more often than not, it uses them to smile. Those who are looking for a more powerful bite will certainly be disappointed, but perhaps it is better to focus on the many new ideas and images Amreeka presents to Western viewers, as opposed to the drawbacks that come with playing nice.