"I hold you close and whisper in your ear:"There's nothing to fear"
I know the things you want to be
I don't know if they will ever come for anyone"...
It is such a fitting song, one that well describes this story about dreaming big and realizing those dreams. Every time I hear that upbeat sound, my heart warms. I can't seem to listen to anything else, I think to myself, as I hit replay for the umpteenth time.
Muna Farah is a strong, round-eyes, cherubic Palestinian woman. Left by her husband for a younger woman, she lives in Bethlehem with her aging mother and her 16-year-old son, Fadi. Set at the beginning of Bush Junior's invasion of Iraq, Amreeka welcomes viewers to catch a small glimpse of her life in Palestine. The Gaza/West Bank has become such old news that the political has become inextricable from the personal. Two-hour rides to work through Israeli checkpoint interrogation have become the norm, but seeing her husband's skinny new girlfriend at the grocery store drives Muna to tears.
She learns that her application for immigration to the United States (one she filled out while still married) has been approved. Scared, but excited and hopeful, Muna and Fadi set out for America, where her sister Raghda, her brother-in-law Nabeel and her nieces Salma, Lamis and Rana await with genuinely open arms. (Her mother moves in with her brother Sameer, who also lives in Bethleham).
The rest of the film has no epic plot, no climax and no anti-climax. It is literally a snapshot of their experience in a new land. At first, I expected the story to be about how her family had changed; how her sister thought her a burden and her nieces thought her an embarrassment. But you quickly realize that this is not the case. This is one of the few uniquely Palestinian aspects of the film: the ties that bind this group of people are able to withstand any form of separation.
For the most part, the film is a universal tale about loving the people who love you even when you don't want their love. It's about family, and fresh starts. About honor and shame and discovering that some things are more important.
At one point, Fadi is reflecting on American life and prematurely comments on how much "this place sucks." "Every place sucks", Muna says lovingly, before she embraces him.
And that is when we realize that this is, at its heart, a story about trying to find a place you belong, even when the world seems to be telling you that you don't belong anywhere.
What becomes clear early on is that Muna and her son are not even Muslim. I am confident that this is no accident. It only adds to the point Raghda makes when she receives a death threat in the mailbox, tying their family to the war in Iraq: "But we're not even Iraqi!" Muna says, indignantly. "They don't know the difference!" Raghda hisses, her eyes wide and her thin lips pursed.
As her son struggles to fit in at high school (with the help of his activist cousin Salma), Muna struggles to be successful and be useful in her sister's home. We watch the characters struggle through the realization that while fresh starts are great in theory, one cannot move forward without reconciling the past with the present, and the future. The tree, as Raghda muses, has roots that yearn for home even after they've been pulled out.
Despite the political nature of the topic, Amreeka is a character-driven story. The most beautiful thing about Amreeka is the small moments that made most of the theatre laugh through their tears, and think "this is just like my home." Oh, these beloved people we call family: we love them, and we hate them. But, more importantly, we love to hate them, and this is what keeps us together.