Film : "Amreeka:" Insight to the immigrant experience
Some things never change, and American prejudice against immigrants is one of them. As part of its Emerging Pictures Series, the Capawock Theatre is offering two showings of "Amreeka," a warmhearted view of how modern day immigrants are treated in the United States.
Directed by New York-based Cherien Dabis, "Amreeka" won the FIPRESCI award at the Cannes Director's Fortnight. It was nominated in three categories - Best Feature, Best Female Lead and Best First Screenplay - for the 1010 Independent Spirit Awards.
The viewer meets Palestinian divorcée Muni Fadar (Nisreen Faour) at her home in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where she lives with her son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) and her mother.
Although Muni has to deal with the hassles of driving daily through an Israeli checkpoint, hers is not a poor and persecuted family. Muni has a good job at a bank in Ramallah, and Fadi attends private school. True, living with her nagging mother and bumping into her ex-husband's girlfriend while shopping is no fun, but things could be a lot worse.
Of course, life in America, the land of opportunity, would be a dream come true, especially for Fadi, who imagines the accommodating girls and abundance of video games.
Thanks to a green card lottery, the dream comes true. Muni packs up her life savings and leaves for the Chicago suburbs, where her sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass, a familiar face from 2007's "The Visitor") lives with her doctor husband and two daughters.
At the last minute, she hides her life savings of $2,500 in a cookie tin. The American invasion of Iraq has just happened, and anti-Arab sentiment is running high. When Muni and Fadi arrive in the U.S., customs agents grill them for three hours, and the cookie tin is confiscated under a "no food" provision.
Muni doesn't realize it's gone until they arrive at her sister's. Horrified, she calls the airport, but the money has disappeared. Despite her banking experience, Muni has no luck finding a job. No one wants to hire a foreigner from the Middle East.
Fadi has his own problems at school. As a F.O.B. (fresh off the boat), he becomes the object of ridicule. Luckily, his cousin takes him under her wing and teaches him how to dress properly, along with a few other less desirable American traits.
The only job Muni manages to find is at a White Castle restaurant. Too embarrassed to admit it to her relatives, she pretends she's working at the bank next door.
Tensions grow in the Halaby family, too. Raghda's husband starts losing patients because of the growing suspicion of non-Anglo Americans, putting the family under financial pressure. To make matters even worse, Muni slips and falls at work, injuring her back, and, after a fight, Fadi lands in jail.
Director Dabis, who grew up in a Palestinian-Jordanian family in Dayton, Ohio, draws from her own experiences, and sees beyond the gloom and doom. In a moment of despair, when Fadi claims they don't belong in America, Muni reminds him, "You can't let anyone make you question who you are."
Muni's strength and optimism win out. She is a welcome reminder of the energy and resourcefulness that immigrants bring with them. In the old days, it was the Irish and Italians that "real" Americans rejected. Now, we welcome different ethnicities into the rich mix that keeps America strong.
Film Notes: Through a special arrangement with the Tisbury Business Association, the Capawock Theatre will also present a screening of the children's film, "Polar Express," on Thursday, Dec. 17, at 4:30 pm. Donation of a nonperishable food item for the Island Food Pantry will provide admission.
"Amreeka", Capawock Theatre, Main Street, Vineyard Haven, Sunday, Dec. 13, 4:15 and 7 pm.; Wednesday, Dec. 16, 4:30 and 7:30 pm. Tickets $9 for adults; $7 for seniors and children.
Brooks Robards writes about film, art, and books for The Times.