Teenage Salma Halaby is in trouble: she’s been out late with her boyfriend and her cousin, smoking pot and getting into scrapes at the local White Castle. When her mom catches her, she’s totally grounded. “As long as you’re in this house,” the mother yells, “you’re in Palestine!”
Amreeka, a film opening today in Los Angeles and New York, is full of moments like this: familiar as a sitcom, on the one hand, but at the same time strikingly political—when’s the last time you heard the territories casually referred to as “Palestine” in a feature film? Written and directed by Cherien Dabis, a Palestinian-American veteran of Showtime’s The L Word, the film is quite possibly the first feature about an Arab-American family in wide release.
In many ways, Amreeka fits neatly into the genre of American immigrant films, using humor and shots of delicious-looking food to tell a universal story about assimilation and homesickness. But because the immigrants in question are Palestinian, the film’s vocabulary includes some of the most hotly contested words and images in contemporary American political discourse. The seemingly inextricable mix of personal and political brings up a tricky question that will likely have repercussions for the film at the box office: are stories about Palestinian life by definition politically charged?
Amreeka opens in the West Bank city of Ramallah on the eve of the Iraq War, where plump, sweet, hapless Muna Farah receives a green card she’d forgotten she had applied for. Fed up with her life’s indignities, which range from harassment at checkpoints to the cutting remarks of her mother, she impulsively asks her son Fadi, 16, if he’d like to move to Chicago, where Muna’s sister Raghda lives. “To pack up all your things and move to a different country—we’d be like visitors,” she worries. “It’s better than being prisoners in our own country,” he replies.
Muna and Fadi move in with Raghda and her family and are greeted with the familiar tropes of immigrant life (at least the way immigrant life is portrayed in the movies): the strain of dealing with financial worries (Muna, an experienced banker, takes a job flipping burgers) and bigotry (Raghda’s husband, a doctor, loses patients after the war breaks out) alternately bring the family closer together and tear it apart.
For Dabis, the familiarity of that story—the idea that Palestinian-Americans share the experience of every other immigrant group—is the point. “I watched, like, every immigrant film out there,” she said, in an interview with Tablet Magazine, invoking My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bend it Like Beckham as predecessors. “I guess it was somewhat a strategy of telling a Palestinian story from a humanist perspective, which is missing from the landscape, especially from the American landscape.”
But of course, in the American landscape—and certainly among Jews—the Greeks of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and the Pakistanis of Bend it Like Beckham do not occupy the same fraught political position that Palestinians do. One of the most familiar tropes of all—the tension, as old as Maria and Anita’s in West Side Story, between Raghda’s nostalgia for the old country and Muna’s enthusiasm for America—is, naturally, laced with references to the occupation.
“You have no idea how much it’s changed,” Muna tells her sister. “The trip that used to take me 15 minutes to get to work now takes two hours. I have to go through two checkpoints and drive around the entire wall to get there.”
“No matter what, it’s home,” Raghda replies.
Cut to Raghda’s middle daughter making a masking-tape line—green, of course—down the center of the room she shares with her younger sister.
Both Dabis and Christina Piovesan, the film’s producer, bristled slightly at the suggestion that such moments might be considered controversial. “Whether or not people agree with the politics, Palestine exists for [Muna], Palestine exists for many people,” Dabis said. “Ignoring that doesn’t really help anyone.”
“We don’t perceive this film as controversial,” Piovesan said. “If the perspective is one of a woman who’s trying to help her son, and the very fact that she’s living in the West Bank is controversial, I don’t know what to say about that.”
Therein lies the paradox of Amreeka: from some political perspectives, both left and right, it’s quite possible to say that the very fact of Muna’s living in the West Bank is controversial. In an essay on Palestinian cinema in Cineaste magazine, New Yorker writer Nana Asfour argues, “More than any of its contemporaries, Palestinian cinema, which only began to appear in the 1980s, is an act of resistance: a kind of ‘I-film-therefore-I-am,’ or even ‘I-film-therefore-you-dear-Palestinians-are.’ It is first and foremost a reclamation of an obliterated identity.” She quotes the Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir, who wrote in an essay, “With cameras, we tell our own stories, represent our experiences, and resist being made invisible.” By this logic, Amreeka is as political as a documentary about bulldozed olive farms would be, and perhaps more effective for the fact of its being in wide release.
From the opposite perspective, Roz Rothstein, director of the American Zionist organization Stand with Us, reached a similar conclusion: that showing the everyday lives of Palestinians, without zooming out to depict the Israeli side of the conflict, is inherently political. Rothstein hadn’t seem Amreeka, but speaking of Palestinian films in general, she said, “If there’s no context, no explanation for why there are checkpoints, and it only shows the inconvenience of the checkpoints, then it’s a biased film. To omit the backdrop of what’s going on and just show a pinpoint of a moment without the context is manipulative.”
But even images of checkpoints can be read in multiple ways, argued Elissa Barrett, director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which is promoting the film in Los Angeles. Looking at these images, she said, “One could say, ‘We understand the personal impact this has on human beings who have rights, and we have to weigh that against national security concerns and figure out a compromise.’ You can have someone else look at it and say, ‘This is anathema to a democracy that participates in the international community.’ It lets us have that conversation with ourselves.”