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Alissa Schachter


By Alissa Schacter

The 2009 film “Amreeka” is a bitter-sweet little gem, written and directed by newcomer Cherien Dabis, and is recommended (I rented the film from Blockbuster at Grant Park Mall).

The film follows the ebullient Muna (Nisreen Faour), a hardworking single mother who immigrates to the United States, hoping to trade in the tribulations of life in the Israeli occupied West Bank for a brighter future for her teenage son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem). Set during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the circumstances ratchet up the stakes for Muna and Fadi who, in addition to the suite of typical challenges facing immigrants, have to contend with a society growing increasingly hostile to Muslims. The fact that Muna and her family are Christian Arabs is totally lost on their new American compatriots.

AmreekaThe movie begins with Muna and Fadi navigating through the day to day obstacles and indignities imposed by the Israeli occupation.  They endure long waits under the searing Middle Eastern sun to cross Israeli military checkpoints on their daily commute.  The tension is palpable; beseeching Arabic music and shots of itinerant male street vendors create a sense of foreboding about what the future holds for Fadi in his homeland.  Then unexpectedly, Muna receives a visa for the U.S. that she applied for years ago.   At her son’s urging, she leaves the security of her bank job, packs up their belongings and says goodbye to her aging mother and brother.  Muna and Fadi head to Illinois where they move in with Muna’s sister, her physician husband and their three girls.   

Muna realizes too late that her nest egg, which she carefully stashed in a sealed cookie tin for the journey, was confiscated by U.S. customs officials.  She is too proud to tell her sister she is now destitute and begins looking for work in earnest.  Muna quickly discovers her ten years of experience in the West Bank is of little value in Illinois.  She is forced to swallow her pride and settle for a job as a short order cook at the White Castle burger joint, while telling her sister and her family that she is working at the neighbouring bank.

Fadi’s American cousins quickly take him under their wings.  The middle sister tells him his clothes make him look like an “FOB” (fresh off the boat) and revamps his wardrobe, while the eldest sister initiates him into the unforgiving world of American high school life.  On his first day of school, Fadi wants to blend in, however the atmosphere is highly charged and his arrival serves as a lightning rod for several racist boys in his class.  With his cousin spurring him on, Fadi becomes drawn in to the brewing racial tensions, leading Muna to question who he has become and an eventual moment of reckoning between mother and son. 

Meanwhile Muna’s brother-in-law, Nabeel (Yussef Abu Warda)’s medical practice is suffering as a tidal wave of xenophobia sweeps the community and he begins to lose his patients.   After fifteen years in the United States Muna’s sister, Raghda (Hiam Abbass) confides to Muna that she is still deeply homesick, and feels “like a tree pulled out by its roots”.   She struggles to support Muna while dealing with her own ambivalence, the strain on her marriage caused by growing financial pressures and her loss of faith in her husband’s ability to protect the family from the rising hostilities.

As Muna watches her sister’s marriage falter under the strain and struggles to find a way to contribute financially, she hears from her mother about the ongoing hardship of life under the occupation.  Muna realizes she cannot go backwards, but must forge ahead and make the best of this new life for her and her son.  Nisreen Faour does a superb job of capturing Muna’s resilient spirit and seemingly indefatigable optimism, despite a cascade of trying circumstances.

When she seems to be most in need of a friend, Muna finds one in the unlikely form of the divorced principle of Fadi’s school, a slightly awkward, well meaning Polish Jew, Mr. Novatski (Joseph Ziegler).   Her blossoming friendship with Mr. Novatski suggests that life in America can offer unexpected possibilities as well as unforeseen challenges. 
The Illinois scenes were filmed in Winnipeg, with the Richardson International airport and Superstore on Kenaston being the most easily identifiable local landmarks. 

Dabis brings a light touch to some heavy issues that remain relevant.  “Amreeka” offers up a timely twist on the age-old immigrant story, and provides a poignant glimpse into what it means to be seen as the “other”.      

Winnipeg’s Alissa Schacter is a former lawyer who recently gave up her career in economic development and policy to pursue her interest in writing. 

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