A review of “Amreeka”

“When it comes to politics, Americans have the memory of a goldfish,” a friend of mine said recently. I cannot help but agree with him. It takes a lot to rile the general public these days, and the large-scale protests seem to fade as quickly as they were organized. Unfortunately, just because the general public stops caring about something does not mean it stops effecting people in their every day lives.

Whether we are talking about gay rights, racism or health care, people will continue to be marginalized and fighting for justice whether or not you are still paying attention.

In Amreeka, out filmmaker Cherien Dabis‘ directorial debut, the problems caused by post-Sept. 11 propaganda manifest themselves in a quieter way — but the repercussions are no less traumatizing for one Palestinian family.

Amreeka tells the story of a woman and her son fleeing the West Bank for America. As check points become increasingly hostile, the woman, Muna Farah, finally gets approved for a green card. She and her son head to a small, Illinois town, where Muna’s sister — who left the West Bank many years prior — lives with her family.

Muna, played by Nisreen Faour, and her teen son Fadi arrive just months after Sept. 11, 2001, which is clear early on from their airport experience. Disgruntled workers give them suspicious or outright hateful glances while tearing through their luggage. When they finally make it home (to Muna’s sister’s house) they realize airport security threw away more than they realized. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s a pretty big deal.

The problems Muna and Fadi experience in America are immediate, but the film is not all doom and gloom. Muna is hilarious, her niece played by Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat is sassy and outspoken and, aside from many of Fadi’s horrifyingly racist classmates, most of the cast is likeable.

Fadi, played by Melkar Mualle, goes from being such a sweet, caring kid to angry — and rightfully so. As a viewer it’s hard not to get angry. A group of Fadi’s classmates, one who has a brother in the Iraq war, becomes increasingly hostile not only to him but to Muna, who is doing everything in her power to maintain a positive attitude.

While Dabis clearly sympathizes with the Farahs in the film, there is a level of sympathy that can be lent to the film’s villains as well. These kids are outright misinformed: they have little to no knowledge of Middle Eastern geography let alone what goes on there politically, after a major American tragedy, their president has declared war on a country that had nothing to do with it — and their loved ones were over there fighting a war they believed was some sort of vengeance for the September 11 attacks. It’s a big mess, as Dabis brilliantly exhibits in the film.

One would hope that by now, people have a clearer vision of what went on in the months and years after the World Trade Center attacks, but the dilemma remains for many Arab-Americans and immigrants. The racism may have faded, but has not gone away. While our goldfish-like attention spans move on to the next big thing, Amreeka reminds us of the everyday struggles that face immigrants, minorities and the rest of the folks who feel isolated in this country and elsewhere.

Dabis, whose Palestinian American upbringing inspired the film, is clearly a talented director, and I’m hoping we will be seeing more of her in years to come.

For a trailer and screening information about Amreeka, visit the film’s website.

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