Thursday, July 21, 2011

Amreeka (2009)

Amreeka The Not-so Beautiful

- 2009's Amreeka, the story of a Palestinian mother and son's move to Illinois during the early part of the Iraq War, frustrates rather than impresses. Written and directed by Palestinian-American filmmaker Cherien Dabis (writer of a handful of "L Word" episodes), Amreeka has a great lead character and fresh subject matter that is unfortunately approached poorly and is blindsided by its heavily one-sided political viewpoint.

Muna Farah (played exceptionally well by Nisreen Faour) is the central character in Amreeka. She is a good mother and a good person who leaves Palestine with her son Fadi to Illinois, fleeing her destabilized country and bruised past for a better life and new opportunities for her son. Staying with her sister until she is able to go out on her own, Muna finds America a tougher place than she had hoped: she has difficulty finding a similar job at an American bank as she had in Palestine and her son Fadi is picked on at school, all presumably because they are Arabs. The strength of Amreeka is its portrayal of the new American immigrant (as opposed to the commonly though-of old immigrants such as the Irish, Italian, etc.) in modern times. Also, Nisreen Faour's performance of the great character of Muna is the highlight of the film - Faour is charming, funny, and all-around likable.

The attention given to a new set of immigrants is refreshing and you have to love Nisreen Faour and the Muna character, even if Faour's is the only great performance in the film (although I am still happy to see the talented Alia Shawkat getting more-and-more work as an actress). However, this is where my personal praises must end, as the positive things about Amreeka are few and far between.

Cherien Dabis claims in her 2009 interview with the Huffington Post that "The film [Amreeka] is not really political. It's political in context but the heart of the story is the relationship between the mother and son." I found the opposite to be the case. The mother-son relationship gets lost in the political context of the film; in fact, the characters basically go their separate ways, in a storytelling sense, once they get to their relatives' house: Muna begins to look for work and Fadi faces the horrors of high school. The two share significant screen time together only a few times since coming to Illinois, the rest of the film is a comment on how America has a negative impact on Arabs.

Amreeka depicts the political and social climate of the United States as overcast with some sort of white protestant male conspiracy where minorities, specifically Arabs in this film, cannot get ahead and are constantly challenged (if that is the case, when will this supposed free ride for white dudes start working for me?). Most of the white males in the film are the Farahs' sources of trouble - the no-patience White Castle boss, the cops, the bully at school, the passive Current Events teacher - the only white male characters worth anything are minorities themselves: a Jewish-American and an alternative geek-cool teen.

Dabis says earlier in the Huffington Post interview that "People can be lazy in their storytelling and then characters become one dimensional and easy to villanize." While undoubtedly not her initial intent, Dabis sums up what she herself has done with Amreeka in this statement. Life in the United States, just like any other place in the world, is tough; and Muna, in the face of those quick to damn the whole of the United States, defiantly says as much. Unfortunately, Muna is the only level-headed, sane, relatable character in the film and the only character with any tangible depth. Her sister is a Palestinian-American with no love for anything American, anything; her nieces are little Western-influenced brats, with Fadi even joining ranks eventually; and I have already discussed the film's portrayal of white American males. It seems as if Dabis failed to adhere to her own code of character creating and, in the process of creating the extremely likable and well-thought-out character of Muna, she filled the rest of the film with "lazy," "one-dimensional," and "easy to villainize" caricatures.

That being said, I would not go on to say that Amreeka is a film to be completely avoided. It is nice to see a film about America's new immigrants and Nisreen Faour's caring performance of Muna Farah is reason enough to check the film out. However, the political angle on the film hurts in more ways than one - and it would be offensive if it was not so stupid. One particular scene featuring a schoolhouse "debate" on the Iraq War between Muna's niece Salma and the bully Mike is particularly hilarious and reveals the film's heavy political slant. When Mike declares "my brother is over there (Iraq) fighting for freedom," Salma ever-so-intelligently replies "if that is what you really think I feel sorry for you." Amreeka paints a grim picture of the United States that, while certainly true in many individual cases, is not representative of the entire country or the collective white ethnicity. If this is what you really think the United States is, I feel sorry for you.

CBC Rating: 5/10

No comments: