Sundance Film Festival 2009: Coming to Amreeka
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
In its basic outline, the movie sounds like a
collection of hoary coming-to-America clichés: 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,
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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