By Willie Krischke — August 24, 2010
The grass is always greener on the other side of the ocean. This is the lesson Nisreen Faour, a non-religious Palestinian, learns in “Amreeka.” Her commute to work, which used to take her ten minutes, now takes two hours due to the military checkpoints that have been set up. She wins the green card lottery that allows her and her son to leave the Middle East for the New Promised Land, but is hestitant to do so because, after all, it is home. But when her smart-aleck son (Melkar Muallem) gets pulled out at one of the checkpoints and searched because of a snide comment, her mind is made up. They will immigrate to America.
They have a tough time getting through customs. “Citizenship?” the customs agent asks her. No, we have none. We are Palestinian. “Occupation?” Yes, for forty years now. “No…I mean, where do you work?”
That turns out not to be a simple question either. In Palestine, she was a banker; she worked in banking for 15 years. In America, the only job she can find is at the White Castle right next to the bank. She and her son move in with her brother and his family in suburban Illinois; he is a doctor, but finds he is losing patients quickly due to the war in Iraq and public prejudice against people of Arab descent. His wife (played by Hiam Abass, one of my favorite actresses working these days) is bitter and mean and most of all, homesick. She would hop on a plane at the first opportunity, if it would take her back to Palestine. “But you haven’t been there in fifteen years,” Faour argues. “You don’t know what it’s like.”
But it certainly isn’t easy being a Palestinian immigrant in suburban Illinois, even if you do live in a house that would accommodate three or four families back home. On Muallem’s first day of school, the teacher immediately puts him on the spot, asking him in front of the class what he thinks about the Israel-Palestine conflict. (Add another to the list of incredibly dumb teachers in the movies.) He’s smart enough to keep his mouth shut; his cousin, on the other hand, is overflowing with unpopular opinions. It’s ironic to watch this young woman, born and raised in Illinois, go on and on about terrorism as a justified response to oppression while the fresh-off-the-boat immigrant sinks into his seat, just hoping not to get beat up.
“Amreeka” is heavy-handed at times, but is guided by solid performances from Faour and Abass. While it is certainly topical, it never feels overly political, and moves with a surprisingly light step all throughout. These situations are tragic, but are played for comedy, and there isn’t a hint of anger anywhere. “This place sucks,” Muallem moans in the climactic scene, after spending a night in jail for defending his mother from bullies. “Yes, it sucks,” she says, “every place sucks. But we will be strong, and we will not forget who we are.”
While “Amreeka” could be viewed as an indictment of American prejudice, xenophobia and insensitivity–and there are certainly those out there who need to get the message–I think the overarching point is that, for many people, there is no comfortable place. Sometimes you trade checkpoints and violence for bigotry and ignorance, and do your best to make a home out of wherever you can. It must take incredible strength.