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The Immigrant Experience from an Arab Point of View

Credit: First Generation Films

Above: "Amreeka"


KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews Amreeka


Filmmaker Cherien Dabis draws on her own memories of growing up with her Palestinian/Jordanian family in rural Ohio to craft the new film "Amreeka" (opening October 2 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Cinemas). You can listen to my review or read my blog post.

When people ask Cherien Dabis where she's from, she's never quite sure how to answer. She was born in rural Ohio, her parents were Palestinian, and she spent considerable time in Jordan. She says she felt like she wasn't American enough for the Americans, nor was she Arab enough for the Arabs. And being a Palestinian only exacerbated the situation because she felt like she never had a nation or a national identity.

Dabis' first feature film "Amreeka" explores the immigrant experience from the point of view of a family that essentially has no country. Muna (well played by Nisreen Faour) is a single mother who leaves the West Bank for America just as the U.S. is invading Iraq. Not exactly the best time to be an Arab trying to get into the U.S. When she arrives at customs in the U.S., she is taken aback by the scrutiny she's given and responds with an honesty that proves humorous. When asked if anyone has asked her to bring anything into the country, she replies, "Only my mother." Then when asked what's her occupation, she misunderstands and says, "Yes it is occupied for 40 years now." America, she discovers, doesn't quite understand what it means to be a citizen of a country that doesn't really exist.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: First Generation Films

The sisters in "Amreeka"

Muna arrives in Illinois. with her teenage son Fadi, and is given a place to stay by her sister Raghda (the wonderful Hiam Abbass). But fitting in to a U.S. high school isn't easy for Fadi. Back home in the West Bank he had to navigate checkpoints and soldiers, at his Illinois high school he had to contend with bullies, racism, and teen fashion. So Fadi relies on his young cousin to teach him a whole new set of rules about what to wear and what's cool and not cool. When his mom inquires what's going on his cousin bluntly tells her, "No auntie because he can't wear things like this, you know what will happen if he wears this to school? He'll look like an FOB." Muna doesn't know what that means and has to be told that FOB means "fresh off the boat."

Both Fadi and Muna make their best effort to fit it. Muna, an accountant back home, tries to get a job but finds that her "two degrees and ten years experience" can only get her a job selling burgers at White Castle. America isn't exactly the land of opportunity she had been hoping for yet she doesn't feel like she can go back to Palestine either. Her sister has been in the U.S. for more than a decade but still feels homesick. Muna suggests though that the home she misses is no longer the same; Palestine has changed. Muna describes how her fifteen-minute commute to work had became a two-hour ordeal with multiple checkpoints and a newly built wall to drive around.

Dabis uses the Palestinian perspective to give her immigrant tale a fresh feel and constant tension. Muna and Fadi's lack of a real homeland intensifies the urgency of their need to find a place to call home and a sense of belonging. But Dabis' freshman effort proves to be a mixed bag. Her film suffers from an overearnestness that often plagues first time directors who feel driven to deliver a message along with their film. Dabis doesn't have the experience she needs to convey her message with subtlety. So sometimes she can be too obvious in making herpoints, as when Muna's neice gets involved in a class debate.

Dabis feels the need to state things outright rather than to let us discover them for ourselves. Too often she tells rather than shows. Yet her film exudes the warmth and charm of a firsthand experience. There's also an appealing sincerity to her portrait of immigrant life.

"Amreeka" offers an uneven but mostly rewarding look at contemporary immigrants trying to assimilate to American life. It also reminds us to celebrate the diversity that these immigrants bring to the United States.

Companion viewing: "West Beirut," "Divine Intervention," "Towelhead"

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