Cherien Dabis’ journey to “Amreeka”

Muna (Nisreen Faour) and Fadi (Melkar Muallem) pass through US customs in a scene from Amreeka.

Why migrate? What do you leave when you do? What’s waiting for you? How do you bring the social construct of “home” with you? Or replace it? And in a collection of such heavy questions, where is there room for marijuana jokes? Director Cherien Dabis’ award-winning feature-length debut Amreeka investigates all of these and much more in an hour and a half of marvelous cinema.

Amreeka opens with Nisreen Faour’s character Muna in a Ramallah market giving the evil eye to the younger and fitter new wife of her ex-husband. Muna is quite uncomfortable being heavy-set and her mother’s comment about how “fat her ass” has gotten doesn’t make her life more satisfactory. Nor does the repetition, by others, of simply-corrected problems at work. Nor do the multiple checkpoints between her Bethlehem home and Ramallah work or her son Fadi’s humiliation at one of them.

Muna’s life is stressful in the occupied West Bank and there is no obvious respite in the near future. After bringing Fadi (Melkar Muallem) home she finds a letter from the US government tucked in the tomatoes like the rest of the mail. A forgotten entry into the US Diversity Visa Lottery — not named in the film but that is really and truly the name of it — has borne fruit; Muna has a Green Card. The original goal of the lottery entry, the family making the move together to the US, disintegrated with the dissolution of the family unit. Muna is hesitant to follow through but Fadi has already perceived limits to his current path. Where will he go to school? Where will he go to college? “We’d be like visitors,” Muna tells him. “It’s better than being prisoners in our own country!” This, in essence, is the migrant’s dilemma in many of the world’s poorer nations. The potential, often overestimated, for transcending boundaries in the richer world is real. But the very title of the “Diversity Lottery” acknowledges the otherness attached to the recipient of it, an otherness that is exceedingly difficult to supersede.

In Amreeka this otherness is compounded by Muna and Fadi’s arrival date, the start of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The hyper-nationalism and jingoistic fervor surrounding the start of the war, one that had largely reigned since shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks, created an environment of intense hostility for Arabs, Muslims or anyone else lumped in as “one of them.” Muna and Fadi are certainly “one of them” but exactly which “of them” are they? “What is your nationality?” asks the customs officer. A tortured attempt to explain ensues. Next question: “Occupation?” Muna senses a spirit of solidarity, “Yes, we have occupation for almost 40 years!” But her job is in banking.

Muna’s family has been in small-town Illinois for 15 years but their otherness remains intact and has, in the days and months preceding and following the start of the Iraq invasion, begun to crystallize and threaten permanence. Sister Ragdha and brother-in-law Nabeel — provided with sterling performances by the Haim Abbass and Yussuf Abu-Warda — are genial hosts but are struggling with alienation from each other and their surroundings, and Nabeel’s patients are decamping for other decidedly less Arab doctors almost daily.

The new arrivals are feeling the pressure from all sides, to succeed at school and in the job market, to support their struggling hosts, to be “one of the good ones” and to fit in to their new home. The crass cruelty shown to Fadi by his classmates, replete with ethnic slurs, stereotyping and bullying, is matched by the cool distance alloted to Muna by prospective employers, this during a period where bank employment was on the rise and the housing bubble expanded. The difficulties are offset by the process of Muna and Fadi discovering their new surroundings and trying to figure out what it means to be Arab and Palestinian in the US.

Fadi is contrasted with his US-raised cousin Salma (Alia Shawkat). Salma’s alterity is still present, but mitigated by her generative familiarity with her surroundings. When she and Fadi are in their current world issues class he tries to remain out of sight while she is assertive of her politics and vocalizes her opinions. She’s also more radical than Fadi and here Dabis offer a passing glance at political contrasts between the Palestinian diaspora and motherland. Some of the real riches of the film are in the comedy that arises during the process of acclimation. Fadi discovers the US fashion staple of the baggy hoodie and Muna creates falafel sliders at her fast-food restaurant job (note: If any White Castle executives are reading this, Muna’s idea is a winner!). And the warmth generated by this exploratory process as well as the trips to pieces of home that are closer, Arab grocers and Palestinian restaurants, speaks to the incredible value of diaspora communities and community space.

Director Dabis has kicked off her feature career in fine form. She offers a terrific comparison and contrast of the geographic and social spaces in Palestine and the United States. The fractured geography of the Ramallah-East Jerusalem-Bethlehem metropolis with its claustrophobic walls, checkpoints and even narrow parking spaces is left behind for the vast spaces and skylines of the US. “How far is Disneyland?” Muna asks. “About 16 hours by car.” Even the social geography is different in the US. Muna’s niece tells her, “Mom says everyone in America is fat so maybe you could fit in.” The filmmaker’s assured and unobtrusive camera work follows a slew of fine performances as they bring to life Dabis’ own script.

Life, it seems, as a single mother newly-arrived to a largely hostile locale is not the cakewalk one might expect it to be. It’s filled with all kinds of problems, roadblocks and trials. Here Dabis excels in completing a human portrait of Muna, rather than simply a victim. The easy, and condescending, route would be fashioning Muna’s difficulties into a simple tale of woe. But Dabis mines comedy and tragedy alike out of the trying situation and Amreeka is a terrific film because of the ability to explore the range of possibilities in the space between.

Jimmy Johnson is a supermarket employee in southeast Michigan and can be reached at johnson [dot] jimmy [at] gmail [dot] com.