Film Review: “Amreeka” (Cherien Dabis) - From the West Bank to Small-town America
by Rasha Khayat
The film “Amreeka” tells the story of a Palestinian family trying to cope with life in its new home, a small town in Illinois. Qantara’s Rasha Khayat went to see the award-winning film and spoke to director and screenplay-writer Cherien Dabis about her successful project
With “Amreeka”, the 33-year-old director and screenplay writer Cherien Dabis has pulled off a notable feat, namely the blending of difficult themes such as home and emigration, racism, and alienation into a light and charming comedy that has the viewer hooked from the opening to the closing credits.
Muna and her 16-year-old son, Fadi, leave their home in the West Bank to start a new life in a small town in Illinois, where Muna’s sister Raghda and her family are waiting for them. However, their dreams of starting afresh are quickly overtaken by the tough reality of everyday life in the American Midwest.
At his new high school, Fadi has to cope with the anti-Islamism of his fellow pupils. They call him “Osama” despite the fact that he was born into a Christian family. Among other things, his schoolmates quite literally use “striking arguments” to teach him that American soldiers only went to the Middle East to bring peace.
Muna, an agile, energetic and optimistic woman, also encounters huge difficulties when she tries to settle into her new environment. She tirelessly searches for a job in a bank only to face rejection time and again, not least because of her Arabic background. She eventually takes a job in a fast food restaurant, but hides the fact from her family; filled with shame at her new job, she tells them that she has at last found work as a book-keeper.
Raghda’s family also has its fair share of problems and conflicts to cope with. On the one hand, the family’s teenage daughters hardly speak any Arabic and consider themselves to be Americans through and through; on the other, their mother’s voice can repeatedly be heard shouting “As long as you live under this roof, you are in Palestine!”
A personal story
Despite the serious and dramatic nature of the material, Cherien Dabis manages to create a light-hearted, almost light-footed film. It provides an authentic account of the ups and downs of life for first-generation immigrants. This is largely down to the talent of the actors. Nisreen Faour (Muna) and Melkar Muallem (Fadi) in particular are entirely convincing in their roles.
Speaking in an interview with Qantara, Dabis says that she spent a long time searching for the right actors for the leading roles, organising castings in the USA, Canada, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. It was in one of these castings that she discovered Melkar Muallem, whose only previous acting experience was in school theatre productions in Ramallah and who made his screen debut in “Amreeka”.
However, the film’s screenplay, which Cherien Dabis wrote herself, also plays a major role in its success. Not only does the director and author know the environment inside out, she also recycled many personal experiences and used them in the film. The daughter of a Palestinian man and a Jordanian woman, Dabis was born in Omaha, Nebraska, where the family increasingly encountered racism and anti-Islamism from their neighbours, acquaintances and schoolmates after the first Gulf War of 1989/90.
“My father is a doctor and around about that time a growing number of his patients stopped coming to his surgery – something that also happens to Nabil, Raghda’s husband, in the film,” explains Dabis. “Because his first name was Nazeh, my father was often called ‘The Palestinian Nazi’. It wasn’t an easy time for him and my mother.”
The truthfulness of fiction
Among other things, these early experiences of racism strengthened Dabis’s resolve to make films. “I believe that it is easier to relate reality in the form of fictional stories than to try and show it as it is,” she explains. This is why Dabis decided against a career as a journalist or a career in law, which her father would have welcomed, and opted instead to study film at the renowned Columbia University in New York.
Before making “Amreeka”, the young film-maker earned a living writing screenplays for the popular TV series “The L-Word”, where she learned both how to work productively and the tricks of the comedy trade. All the while, her heart ached to make a film like “Amreeka”.
“I wasn’t at all worried about the screenplay. But getting the necessary funding to make the film was a real problem,” she says. She presented her idea to dozens of major studios only to be told every time that the project was just too culturally specific. But Dabis refused to give up and eventually found support for her project. “Amreeka” became the first ever Arab-American co-production, involving a number of American studios, Showtime Arabia and the largest media studio in the Arab world, Rotana Studios.
Cherien Dabis and her perseverance have been richly rewarded with the film’s resounding success. From the Sundance Festival and Cannes to the film festivals of Dubai and Beirut, “Amreeka” is sweeping the board. It even won the critics’ prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Dabis is particularly pleased that the film has received a rapturous reception both in the country of her birth, the United States, and in countries across the Arab world. Says Dabis: “I couldn’t have asked for a better confirmation of my work.”
© Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
The DVD can be ordered from the website http://www.amreeka.com or from Amazon.com.