Award-winning Arab American film 'Amreeka' in theaters
By Will Youmans and Khalil AlHajal | Friday, 09.18.2009, 08:47 PM

A National Geographic film, "Amreeka," is a thoroughly authentic portrayal of the immigrant experience.

Nisreen Faour as Muna in "Amreeka," from National Geographic Entertainment.

It shows the joys and difficulties of leaving one's homeland for a new place, and makes room for both drama and comedy.

Cherien Dabis, the film's writer and director, drew on her own personal experience as an Arab American teenager in Ohio during the first Gulf War.

"The story for this film has been with me since I was 14," Dabis said after an advance screening of the film at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.

Anti-Arab sentiment ran high as the U.S. went to war with Iraq for the first time. Dabis' family received death threats. The Secret Service came to her high school when there were rumors her sister threatened to kill the president.

Dabis also made use of potent memories of watching relatives struggle after joining her family in the U.S.

The film represents a landmark in Arab American cinema, as the first widely-distributed movie by an Arab American about the nerve-racking experience of immigrating to the U.S. from the Middle East. Dabis said she relied heavily on Arab American community support to fund the film.

The movie's main characters, Muna (Nisreen Faour) and her son Fadi (Melkar Muallem), leave Bethlehem in the West Bank to join Muna's sister in Illinois in search of the American dream.

Melkar Muallem as Fadi in "Amreeka," a film by Cherien Dabis.

They leave to escape occupation and to give Fadi more opportunities.

Fadi says about leaving, "it's better than being prisoners in our own country."

The film was shot in the West Bank and in Canada and takes place in 2003, at the beginning of the second Iraq War.

Muna's sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass), lives a suburban life with her husband, a doctor, and three daughters. Her husband, constantly glued to the television for breaking news on the mounting invasion, begins losing patients uncomfortable with having an Arab doctor.

Their eldest daughter Salma (Alia Shawkat), is a politically conscious and rebellious teenager who fights her parents. After coming home late one night, she argues with her mother, saying that they live in America, where the society is different. Raghda screams back that "as long as you live in this house, you live in Palestine," a typical Arab American familial argument and a symbol of Raghda's deep desire to return home.

The dialogue is realistic, capturing what takes places in many Arab American homes. Both Salma and her sister Lamis (Selena Haddad), modify Fadi's wardrobe to make sure he doesn't "look like a F.O.B.," fresh off the boat.

Muna loses her savings, hidden in a tin of cookies to customs agents on the way to the her new home. Muna is unable to find a banking job despite her ten years of experience and two degrees.

One bank manager, after learning Muna is Arab, says to her, smiling, "don't blow up the place… just kidding."

She eventually finds work at a White Castle, but is ashamed to tell her family. She fries falafel for her co-workers, takes to selling customers herbal drinks for extra income and gets in trouble for telling a customer she should watch her weight.

Cherien Dabis on set in the West Bank, one of the locations of her feature film directorial debut "Amreeka."

For Dabis, Muna's constant "rose-tinted glasses," her constant optimism, is a source of humor. It is also what drives so many immigrants who arrive here to make opportunities for themselves.

Fadi is bullied at school by a band of bigots who suggest he is a terrorist and call him "Osama."

The family's interaction with the American characters around them shows how immigrants are welcomed by some and opposed by others.

Muna finds an ally in the high school principle, who is of Polish Jewish ancestry.

Dabis said she intended this to show that quite often Arabs and Jews in the United States are friends, and "we don't get to see that enough."

Muna also develops a friendship with her blue-haired co-worker, who, like her, is an outsider. Their relationship is defined by their introduction to each other. When he says his name is Matt, she tells him his name means "death" in Arabic. He responds "cool."

Amreeka is a rich movie. It deals with a complex experience, immigration during a politically tumultuous time.

It criticizes the American dream but does not discount it and does so from the perspective of one intimately familiar with immigration. Dabis does an excellent job in portraying authentically this experience, while managing a story that anyone can relate to.

The film is both a serious study of Arab immigration in the Bush era and a light-hearted, personal story of leaving home, re-joining family and adjusting to a new place, in the face of harrowing obstacles.

The film won awards at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. It is being distributed nationally by National Geographic Entertainment, as the organization's first ever narrative feature, according to Laura Kim of National Geographic marketing.

"National Geographic and this film make a perfect match," she said.

Amreeka is now playing at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 West Maple Road in Bloomfield Hills.

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By Will Youmans and Khalil AlHajal

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