Aspen Filmfest’s ‘Amreeka’: Arab and American
October 2, 2009
ASPEN – Muna Farah, the central character in “Amreeka,” is forced to endure all sorts of humiliations. A single woman emigrating from the West Bank to small-town Illinois, she is treated with suspicion upon first setting foot in an American airport. A bank executive back home, she takes a job at White Castle – a situation made worse by the often rude customers, and the fact that she hides her employment from her family. Her son, Fadi, is becoming Americanized on the one hand, and taunted by his classmates for being not only a foreigner, but an Arab in the post-9/11 world.
Cherien Dabis, the writer-director behind “Amreeka,” says Muna’s experience is actually a toned-down version of reality. Dabis, who makes her debut as a feature filmmaker with “Amreeka,” was born in Nebraska to Middle Eastern parents and raised mostly in small-town Ohio, but also spent considerable time in Jordan. The treatment of Arab-Americans she witnessed was severe – and that was before Sept. 11.
“Things were much more absurd in real life,” said Dabis from her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “In real life, the Secret Service showed up at my high school to investigate a threat that my sister was planning to kill the president.” Dabis adds that this was only one incident that occurred during the first Gulf War; she also saw her father, a pediatrician/neonatologist, lose a significant number of his patients.
There is plenty of distance between Muna – middle-aged, Middle East-born, a heavy-set mom – and Dabis – 32, American-born, attractive. Still, “Amreeka” feels through and through like an intensely personal story; it comes as a surprise to find that the plot was not lifted more directly from Dabis’ own past. But it comes as no surprise to hear Dabis say that this was a story she needed to tell.
“I felt compelled to make it because of my own experience growing up Arab-American in a small town,” said Dabis, whose short, “Make a Wish,” set in Palestine, earned a Special Recognition award at Aspen Shortsfest 2006, and whose new film shows Sunday, Oct. 4, in Aspen Filmfest 2009. “I felt an urgency. We were so under-represented and misrepresented.”
“Amreeka” portrays a tension between worlds and between desires. The film, which was screened at Cannes and Sundance, opens in Palestine, and the depiction is dreary. Muna is a competent woman working in an environment that seems designed to thwart competence. Add in the Israeli occupation, the stinging indignity of having to pass through checkpoints, and she jumps at the chance to move to America, where her sister’s family had settled some years earlier. Muna is not eager to leave: She has attachments to Middle Eastern culture, to the family members left behind. But America offers opportunities, especially for her son and his future, that the West Bank does not.
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In America, things go worse than expected. She loses the money she had stashed away. Her sister’s family, which she moves in with, is going through tough times of their own: The children are rebellious; her brother-in-law is having difficulties in his medical practice.
Dabis never went through that particular upheaval. Muna, in fact, is based on Dabis’ aunt. But Muna’s turmoil is a reflection of what the filmmaker went through as a teenager, when her life was turned upside down by the Gulf War.
“I was 14 and my life just completely changed,” Dabis said. “I went from wanting to be that all-American kid, working to fit it, to being very aware of the stereotypes. I became very aware I was Arab in part, American in part. It began my journey of wanting to be a storyteller, and find a way of telling it that would appeal to large audiences.”
“Amreeka” achieves a universal perspective in part through the character of Muna, and her portrayal by the Palestinian actress Nisreen Faour. Dabis says it took a six-month search before she found the actress she wanted to play the role. Muna is bewildered by her circumstances; Faour fills the character with vulnerability. But she remains open-minded, curious and, against the odds, hopeful.
Broadening the appeal of the film are the other characters, and the points of view they represent. Dabis says she identifies most strongly with Muna’s oldest niece, who is rebellious in the manner of an American teen, but also outspoken in her defense of Arabs and outraged by the way Arabs can be viewed in America.
“She accepts that she’s not just American,” said Dabis. “I always had to defend America to my parents, and defend the Arab world to people in school. And that’s the dilemma that she finds herself in. Like most first-generation American children, she’ll come to appreciate that she comes from two cultures.”
“Amreeka” ends with Muna taking a metaphorical trip back home, as the extended family visits a Middle Eastern restaurant. There is joy in tasting the food, and in knowing that she has probably cleared the first and biggest hurdle in creating a new life. But the path ahead is still uncertain, and the question is open whether coming to America has been a wise choice.
“My intention was for the end to be bittersweet – what she’s given up and what she misses, the sacrifices she has made,” said Dabis. “She’s trying to make a home; she’s decided to stay, because it’s better than what she left. It will be a long road of struggle, but they will survive. It takes a long time to feel comfortable in your skin.”
Dabis is at work on her next script. She says it has a far different tone than “Amreeka,” but it still has her working out issues of identity and conflict. In the new story, a Palestinian-American woman goes to Jordan to plan her wedding, and finds that her Christian family doesn’t approve of the Muslim groom.
Dabis says she can envision a time for herself when her characters are not so strongly identified by their color, religion and nationality. But for the moment, she feels compelled to tell stories based on her own experience. And she believes that putting such issues on the big screen is an effective way to spread understanding.
“I think film speaks the universal language of motion,” she said. “It has the ability to give people new eyes and ears, and meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. That’s a powerful thing.”