From writer-director Cherien Dabis, Amreeka takes on a loaded subject, strips it of its political ramifications and draws out the common humanity underwriting even the most divisive of hot button issues. About a Palestinian family struggling to adjust to immigrant life in America, the film turns on the everyday challenges, poignant small triumphs and burdens of the daily grind they face and strive to overcome. There’s no aggrandizing or preaching, just an understanding of the difficulties that arise in any sort of clash of cultures and the hopeful suggestion that, were we just more willing to talk to each other, some of them might be solved.
The picture, set in 2003 at the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, stars the wonderful actress Nisreen Faour as Muna Farah, mother to Fadi (Melkar Muallem), who seizes on the opportunity to move with her son from their restrictive West Bank home to small town Illinois, where her sister Raghda (Hiam Abbas) and brother-in-law Nabeel (Yussuf Abu-Warda) have lived for 15 years. The latter operates a successful medical practice and Muna arrives with dreams of continuing her career in banking. Yet she puts on a proud, determined face even as she’s reduced to working at a White Castle, xenophobia rears its ugly head and the marriage between Raghda and Nabeel faces a major test.
Dabis, an American of Palestinian and Jordanian descent, based the screenplay on her own experiences growing up in rural Ohio and the film reverberates with a clear sense of the day-to-day tempo of small town existence. She understands that the inherent dramatic conflict facing a family trying to preserve their way of life in a setting comprised largely of chain restaurants, bleak strip malls and ranch homes, so foreign to them it might as well be the moon, is strong enough that it requires little embellishment. So, she avoids the trap that has subsumed nearly every filmmaker to have attempted to tell a story that even indirectly touches on life in the modern Middle East. Instead of relying on heavy symbolism she opts for naturalism and subtlety. We don’t get a bunch of halfhearted wall metaphors or big speeches about Israeli injustice. The characters are not seized with distrust of Israelis or Jews, but a strong universal desire to live as freely as possible. Even during an early scene, in which Israeli soldiers suspiciously interrogate Fadi, Dabis keeps her camera trained on Faour, focused on the ways any mother might respond to such an occurrence, not as a cheap tool to provoke outrage at Palestinian suffering.
The true value of Amreeka lies in its steadfast commitment to zeroing in on as ordinary and recognizable a family as possible. They may be of Palestinian descent, they might speak an unfamiliar language and eat unfamiliar food, but at the heart of it they are us and we are them. The Farah-Halaby family worries about finding jobs, seeing their children through school and finding a happy medium between the culture they’ve left behind and the new one they’ve adopted, in the same basic fashion as most anyone who’s ever faced those common everyday concerns. They’re not zealots or activists; some days they’re open to the promises America has to offer. On others, they wish they could fly back home and once again occupy a recognizable, friendly world. Impeccably cast with actors who command attention and successfully wring pathos out of their evocation of a broad register of emotions — Faour with the authentic enthusiasm with which she strives to get ahead, Muallem with his intense shyness — the movie’s been made without embellishment or condescension. Instead, in the ways it finds the drama within the daily grind we’ve all experienced and transfers that overarching sense of normalcy to a Palestinian family the film achieves something that is, in its own small way, rather profound.