Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour), a Palestinian single mum, struggles to maintain her optimistic spirit in the daily grind of intimidating West Bank checkpoints, the constant nagging of a controlling mother, and the haunting shadows of a failed marriage. Everything changes one day when she receives a letter informing her that her family has been granted a U.S. Green Card. Reluctant to leave her homeland, but realising it may be the only way to secure a future for her teenage son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), Muna quits her job at the bank and visit her relatives in Illinois (Hiam Abass, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Ali Shawkat) to see about a new life in a land that gives newcomers a run for their money...
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The extreme end of the fish out of water story is that of migrants moving to a vastly different culture from a home in which they can't stay, to a home they can't stand. In this remarkably well handled version of such a story, a divorced Palestinian woman and her teenage son get a chance to work in Amreeka ... The application took so long that by the time it is granted, Muna (Nisreen Faour) has divorced. Egged on by her son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) who wants a chance at a college education and a career in the arts, Muna packs up and goes.
Of course life in the Amreekan paradise is not necessarily better, but it's certainly different. Outsiders have to find a way to adjust to the social and financial landscape. Muna finds it hard, as does Fadi. Both deliver terrific performances; Faour is vulnerable, defiant, frightened and determined by turns, and Muallem is a natural in a challenging role that calls for a mix of performance restraint and technique.
Their relatives are also superbly played by the experienced Hiam Abbas (seen in Australia in Paradise Now, Munich, The Visitor and Lemon Tree, as well as a small role in Limits of Control) and Yussuf Abu-Warda who plays her husband, a doctor whose practice is falling away in the wake of the Iraq war, which has just started at the time of this story. Also excellent is Alia Shawkat as their daughter. Shawkat followed Amreeka with the role of Pash in Drew Barrymore's questionable directorial effort, Whip It.
The themes and issues that Cherien Dabis works into the screenplay add layers of texture and interest and relevance - but it's the humanity of the work that makes it resonate and the insight into a culture closed to most Australians that makes it illuminating.
Review by Louise Keller:
Identity and being proud of who you are is the focus of this delicate yet powerful drama that follows the journey of a displaced Arab woman and her teenage son in their new home in America. Or Amreeka, as they call it. Writer director Cherien Dabis writes about what she knows about being a stranger in a new land: the difficulties, the isolation, the conflicts, the misunderstandings. The result is a heartfelt and engaging film that gives us a clear insight into the plight of a small family unit stumbling against discrimination, bureaucracy and financial set backs. Above all it's a human story as a mother struggles against the odds to find acceptance in her new home.
We'd be like visitors, Nisreen Faour's Muna Farah tells her son Fadi (Melkar Muallem), when he enthuses about taking advantage of the Green Card that has just arrived in the mail at their Bethlehem home. 'It's better than being prisoners in our own country,' he retorts. Life on the West Bank post 9/11 is no longer tenable for the divorced mother. Every part of her everyday existence is tearing her apart. The frustrations at the bank where she works; the intolerant soldiers at the checkpoints and a demanding elderly mother at home. But uprooting from what you know is not easy either and things start badly when the tin of cookies (containing all Muna's savings) is confiscated at the airport.
After a shortlived happy reunion with Muna's sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass) and her doctor husband Nabeel (Yussuf Abu-Warda), like Muna and Fadi, we get a sense of what life has in store. At home, there's growing tension between Raghda and Nabeel prompted by financial strains, while at school, Fadi discovers ignorant, racist discrimination is rife, as he is instantly assumed to be a muslim, a terrorist and an Osama Bin Laden follower. Muna's pride stops her from telling her family she is serving hamburgers and mopping floors at White Castle fast foods; her qualifications stand for nothing so she pretends she is working at the adjacent bank.
Peer pressure and taunts at school lead to physical altercations and conflict with the law. Muna finds unexpected support and a sympathetic ear from Fadi's headmaster Stan Novotski (Joseph Ziegler), whose own Polish Jewish background give him an insight into her difficulties. I like the scene in the car when Muna shares an interesting fact about chess - that Arabs invented the game.
It's a strong cast and Nisreen Faour is especially appealing as the likeable, strong and proud Muna who is prepared to go to any lengths to make a go of her new life and protect her son. The irony of course lies in the fact that starting again in a new country may not in fact offer a better life, but throws up a set of different problems to consider.
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CHERIEN DABIS INTERVIEW
CAST: Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Jenna Kawar, Selena Haddad, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Joseph Ziegler, Andrew Sannie, Daniel Biteau, Brodie Sanderson
PRODUCER: Paul Barkin, Christina Piovesan
DIRECTOR: Cherien Dabis
SCRIPT: Cherien Dabis
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Tobias Datum
EDITOR: Keith Reamer
MUSIC: Kareen Roustum
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Aiden Leroix
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sharmill Films
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 19, 2009 (previews Nov 13 - 15)