Mideast Meets Midwest

Written and directed by Cherien Dabis. With Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, and Jenna Kawar. (PG-13)

Over the last year, there has been a welcome influx of films that concern themselves with the often strained relations among Arabs, Israeli Jews and Westerners. Each has approached the subject in its own way: with gentle humor (The Band's Visit), cold comfort (The Visitor), or headstrong determination (Lemon Tree). With writer/director Cherien Dabis' new film Amreeka, we get another take: American sitcom. No, I'm not counting You Don't Mess With The Zohan.

The film stars Nisreen Faour as Muna Farah, a caring, slightly dotty Palestinian woman who is literally given a ticket out of her life in the Occupied Territories when her long-forgotten visa application is approved. Chafing under Israeli rule and worried about her son Fadi's future, she packs their bags for Illinois, where relatives have established an American outpost.

Their arrival on these shores is less than auspicious: it comes on the day U.S. forces invade Iraq, and Muna manages to lose her savings during a stressful airport security check. Naive and trusting, she can't fathom why Americans would treat her with suspicion. (Later, when anti-Saddam hate mail arrives at the family home, Muna doesn't get it: "We're not even Iraqi!" she declares, though the film gets to play it both ways—young actress Alia Shawkat is actually half-Iraqi.)

Once settled, the story plays out along familiar but agreeable immigrant-tale lines: Muna finds a job, her son slowly finds his footing, and the pair at once embrace American life and find ways to reaffirm their roots. Along the way are struggles and small humiliations, occasional snatches of joy, and a helpful, single school principal who happens to be Jewish. There are racists, and there are those who help shout them down.

But mostly there is family, and that is where Amreeka finds its hidden strength. The mother, Muna, provides some early laughs—in a tart twist, she seems like a stereotypical Jewish mother—but it is Hiam Abbass, as the no-nonsense, largely westernized sister Raghda, who carries the day. This wonderful actress, who, by no coincidence, also starred in both Lemon Tree and The Visitor, is that rare mix that projects both a fierce, passionate will and tenderness at the same time. She's exactly what someone like Muna needs in her life.

There's always a question in my mind, when seeing films like this, about what wider effect they might have: whether the fairly toothless comedy will lull us into a false sense of equality, into thinking it means old divisions are dead and buried. Amreeka, though, doesn't hide them—it just reminds us that there's still plenty of hope for those ready to repair the damage.


Also this week: After a successful 15-year run, the Northampton Independent Film Festival (NIFF) is trying something new this season when it presents Sex and Cinema, a night of three films on a common theme selected to appeal to "filmgoers with an appetite for artistic adventure, intellectual discussion and originality," according to Doug Guthrie, President of the NIFF Board of Directors.

In contrast to the natural sprawl of a traditional festival format, the recurring mini-fests—Sex and Cinema is only the first of a series that NIFF plans to present throughout the year—allow for a more cohesive night, as the booking can be tightly tailored to a single vision. To enrich the events, the organizers will bring filmmakers and cinema scholars to town to lead discussions about each film, and will screen a selection of shorts before the features. Ten dollars buys you a ticket for the whole night.

The inaugural evening gets underway this Saturday at 5 p.m. at Northampton's Academy of Music, when HBO Independent Film makes possible a free screening of Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Marina Zenovich's Emmy award-winning documentary about the famous director and his infamous legal troubles. Charged with the rape of a minor in the 1970s, Polanski (Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby) fled the country prior to sentencing, and was only recently arrested in Switzerland at the request of U.S. authorities. (He is currently in a Zurich jail, awaiting extradition.) Zenovich's film looks at the case through a mix of archival footage and contemporary interviews, revealing a complex history that is less clear-cut than it first appears to be. Film professor and curator David Kleiler moderates a Q&A focused on the embattled director.

Following that is a 7 p.m. screening of Orgasm, Inc., a recent documentary turned expos? by filmmaker Liz Canner. In it, Canner—who leads a panel discussion following the film—finds work editing the erotic videos a pharmaceutical company uses in its trials for a new drug that they hope will turn out to be a kind of Viagra for women. More importantly, they hope the FDA will approve their new drug to treat a convenient new disease: Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD). While Canner's initial plan called for a documentary about the meeting of science and eros—surprisingly, her employer gave her permission to film the company's work—she soon comes to think that the wild profits to be had in the medical industry may be pushing "innovation" at the expense of well-being.

The final film of the night is Friends (with Benefits), a movie about the awkward sort of half-relationship implied by the title. Directed and cowritten by Gorman Bechard (who leads a Q&A following the screening), it tells the story of lifelong friends and current med students Chloe and Owen, a pair with all the desire of youth but no room for full-time relationships. Owen thinks he has the answer (see title), but the film's web address offers what is probably a wiser phrase; you can find it at WhatWereWeThinkingFilms.com.

Still another documentary comes to the Academy on Wednesday Nov. 11, when the food-chain story What's On Your Plate? screens in a 6:30 p.m. show. Sadie and Safiyah are two 11-year-old kids who arm themselves with a camera and their inquisitive natures in an effort to understand how their dinner reaches the table. With director Catherine Gund in tow, the duo visits New York markets and lunchrooms, farms and farmer's markets, and community agriculture programs. The film is geared toward inspiring the next generation of adults as much as our current crop; appropriately, the presenters are offering a special admission of just five dollars per family—bring the kids, then let them pester the waiter at dinner.

Amherst Cinema also tries something different this week when it offers a simulcast of Times Talks Live, an ongoing series of interviews with arts-and-culture types, conducted by writers and critics from The New York Times and streamed live to theaters across the country.

On Tuesday at 7 p.m., Janet Maslin (currently a book critic for the Gray Lady, she made her name as the paper's longtime film critic) sits down with Stephen King (The Shining, Cujo, Carrie, etc.) on the publication of his latest supernatural tour guide of Maine. Twelve dollars gets you in the door.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

Author: Jack Brown

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