Amreeka

After the screening for Amreeka ended, I staggered out into sunny Soho and struck up a conversation with someone at the screening. ¬†After deliberating over the merits of the film he used a particular word to describe it as a whole, that word was ‘charming’ and I agreed with him. Ever since then that word has been the one that instantly comes to mind when I’m thinking about this film. There’s a charm about Cherien Dabis’ award-winning film that belies its more serious themes.

Released in America in 2009, Amreeka finally makes its bow on our shores and it tells the story of Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour), a single mum seeking a way out of war-torn Palestine. After her application for a US visa is accepted, her son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) convinces her that they should leave in order to find a better life. Their life in America gets off to a bad start after a problem at customs where Muna’s biscuit tin, holding $2500, is confiscated and only gets worse thereafter. With very little money at Muna’s disposal, compounded by the family she’s staying with encountering financial difficulty and Fadi facing discrimination at school, Muna takes on a job at fast food joint White Castle but lies about it to escape the shame of it. With the US about to invade Iraq tensions are high and Muna and Fadi find it difficult acclimatising to a different culture.

There’s a lot going on in Amreeka theme-wise. Notions of alienation, persecution, experiencing a new culture and discrimination are all brought up and explored by Dabis in a manner that veers from piercing commentary to light-hearted comedy. Combined with its low-fi, grainy look, its unmistakably an independent film, its reined in scope allowing it to focus on its characters rather than allow itself to take its eye of the ball and get involved in the larger events surrounding the film. At the heart of Amreeka lies the idea of identity and home, and in venturing to a new country preserving that sense of who you are without changing or giving up and admitting defeat. It’s about persevering when obstacles (discrimination, racial profiling) threaten to break your spirit and in that aspect Amreeka is a rather winning film.

Having the film set in an America that’s on the verge of invading Iraq appears interesting; a hot button topic for the film to uncover except that at the time of its release it was six years behind and now it’s eight years. The sense of it being outdated makes some of the topics feel a little redundant, especially now that the landscape of the world has taken another turn in the last few weeks. Despite its valiant efforts, time has left this film in the dust a little bit.

But while it seems like a relic in terms of its setting, its ideas still prevail as its underlying themes of leaving home, finding some semblance of oneself elsewhere is a constant issue no matter what. Dabis has crafted an optimistic and, yes, charming film with good performances and the over-arching message that the issue of being different can be overcome.

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