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Sundance Film Festival 2009: Coming to Amreeka

If

the U.S. dramatic competition at Sundance this year failed to yield one

truly great film, it did offer up a lovely surprise in writer-director

Cherien Dabis' Amreeka,

which follows a Palestinian single mother and her son as they emigrate

from the West Bank town of Ramallah to the flatlands of the American

Midwest.

In its basic outline, the movie sounds like a

collection of hoary coming-to-America clich├ęs: Upon arriving in

suburban Illinois, Muna (the excellent Nisreen Faour) and 16-year-old

Fadi (Melka Muallem) move in with Muna's sister, Raghda (The Visitor

co-star Hiam Abbas), who herself dreams of returning to her homeland.

Raghda's husband, a doctor, has seen one white patient after another

take their business elsewhere following 9/11 and the Iraq invasion. And

as Muna searches for a job and Fadi enrolls in a public high school,

they too encounter the face of anti-Muslim discrimination at every

turn. That Muna and Fadi aren't Muslims hardly matters. All that

matters is that they look the part.

Like The Visitor,

to which it will surely be compared, Dabis' film aspires to show the

plight of Arab people living in the U.S. in the Homeland Security era.

Only, unlike that film, Amreeka tells its story from the

inside-out, without want or need of a white protagonist to serve as the

audience's surrogate, and with real three-dimensional characters

instead of blunt ideological instruments masquerading as human beings.

Although Dabis (who is Palestinian herself) isn't entirely immune from

painting in broad strokes -- once again, a white character's first

encounter with falafel is deployed as a symbol of East-West bonding --

the details in the film feel lived-in and sincere. Systematically, one

form of humiliation is traded for another: no longer subjected to daily

searches by West Bank checkpoint guards, Muna instead finds herself

flipping burgers at White Castle, while Fadi's classmates accuse him of

plotting to blow up the school.

At the heart of Amreeka

beats an irresolvable conundrum: that a nation founded by immigrants

can be so narrow-mindedly conformist. Yet, given every opportunity for

self-pitying ACLU hand-wringing, Dabis keeps the film's tone buoyant

and light, making a fine comedy of deception out of Muna's efforts to

convince her family she actually works in a bank, and laying the

groundwork for a gentle, not-quite romance between Muna and the Jewish

principal of Fadi's school. When most filmmakers want to say something

important about cultural conflicts, they labor to bring tears to our

eyes. Dabis, by contrast, makes us laugh at ourselves and, in turn,

each other.

Amreeka

was the best of several films at Sundance this year concerned with

living in (or getting to) the U.S. as seen through foreigners' eyes, a

couple of which seem poised for prizes at the festival's closing-night

awards ceremony, which begins in an hour from now. One of those

contenders is Student Academy Award winner Cary Joji Fukunaga's Sin Nombre,

which won over audiences (and a lot of critics) with its violent story

of a teenage Honduran girl and a Mexican teen gangbanger on the run who

end up on the same perilous train journey to the U.S.-Mexico border.

When they say "From the producers of The Motorcycle Diaries," they're not kidding: another lushly produced, impersonally directed piece of Central/South American slum porn, Sin Nombre hitches

stylized suffering on to a direly predictable street-thug scenario (two

friends, torn between their loyalty to the gang and to each other)

while awating the inevitable plaudits of festival juries, American

art-house moviegoers and Oscar voters. (No surprise: this is one of the

only competition entries to arrive at Sundance with a distributor

already in place.) Fukunaga's film is slightly less exploitative, and

therefore marginally preferable, to Fernando Meirelles' rancid City of God -- but not by very much.


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