9 November 2009 | howard.schumann
An overly simplistic approach
Amreeka (the Arabic word for America) is a humorous and warm-hearted first feature from Cherien Dabis that follows a Palestinian woman, Muna (Nisreen Faour) and her sixteen-year-old son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem) from the checkpoints of the West Bank to the checkmates of racial animosity in a small town in Illinois near Chicago. Set in 2003 at the start of the Iraq War, Muna leaves Bethlehem because she desires a better life for her son and can no longer put up with overbearing Israeli police, the harangues of her elderly mother, and reminders of her philandering ex-husband. The opening sequence in which Muna is ecstatic about receiving her Green Card in the mail and says tearful goodbyes to her family on her way to America joyously captures the closeness of family and their caring for each other in a lighthearted manner.
Unfortunately in the rest of the film things do not go as well for the young family. They have to deal with numerous incidents of overt and covert racism including bullying at school as they try to adjust to a new home and a new country. Things start off badly when Muna and Fadi are harassed for three hours at the airport by Israeli customs and a tin box filled with cookies and all of their savings are handed over by Fadi to customs officials. Fadi does not say anything to his mother about this (a most unlikely circumstance) and the loss is only discovered after the two arrive at the home of relatives in Illinois. From there, things go steadily south. Muna tries to get a job in her profession in a bank but is rejected by employers who look at all Arabs as potential terrorists.
Ending up working at a burger joint, Muna conceals her employment from her relatives, pretending to work at a bank close to the restaurant, but her shame is apparent. Meanwhile Fadi is tormented by school bullies who call him Osama and her relatives begin to bicker over their increased expenses at the time when the family breadwinner, a physician (Yussef Abu Warda), is losing clients because of his Arab appearance. While people need to be reminded of the hurt of racism and the Arabs contribution to the world, Amreeka offers one contrived subplot after another in which Americans are caricatures of either hate-filled racists or Christ-like saviors like Mr. Novatski (Joseph Ziegler), Fadi's principal (who happens to be Jewish).
What could have been an excellent opportunity to explore the problems of assimilation or the treatment of minorities instead becomes a litany of clichés. There is no mention of 9-11, issues involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the problem of bullying in schools, and the possibility of involving teachers, school officials, or even the neighborhood church in helping the immigrant family to cope are not examined. While Amreeka has moments of charm and likability and the performances are excellent, the exercise quickly becomes a big screen version of "As the World Turns", doomed by an overly simplistic approach in which victimization substitutes for cooperation in finding solutions.