Although Canada had no presence in the main competition in Cannes, Amreeka, a Canadian co-production playing in the Directors’ Fortnight has won the International Critics (FIPRESCI) Prize. The movie, which first caught fire at the Sundance festival, is an an exotic breed—a Canada-U.S.-Kuwait co-venture. It drew a rapturous standing ovation in Cannes and I suspect this crowd-pleaser will charm audiences where ever it plays. But it’s usual that such an obvious crowd-pleaser would also seduce a jury of international film critics.
Amreeka is a heart-warming comedy-drama about the ordeal of a Palestinian single mother, Muna (Nisreen Faour), and her teenage son, Fadi (Melkar Mouallem), who emigrate from Ramallah to begin a bumpy new life in small-town Illinois with her sister (Hiam Abbass) and her family. The story is set in the early stages of the Iraq war, not the best time for Palestinians to try assimilating in Middle America. Muna is mortified when she realizes that her savings, stashed in a cookie tin, have been confiscated by at the airport by U.S. Customs. A former bank employee, she tries to find similar work in America to no avail—then ends up working in a White Castle burger joint while pretending to her family that she’s found a job in the bank next door. Fadi, meanwhile, is harassed as school with Arab terrorist stereotypes.
Written and directed by Cherian Debis, a New York-based filmmaker who’s the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Amreeka drives home its message of liberal tolerance rather broadly, but the characters are nuanced and well drawn. And the film’s real strength resides in a powerhouse performance by Nisreen Faour a woman in culture-shock free-fall who eventually lands on her feet. This is the kind of redemption drama that could really take off
With a shoot that ranged from Ramallah to Winnipeg, Amreeka has a wacky corporate pedigree. Produced by a mix of Canadian, U.S. and Kuwait companies, it also has backing from Saudi Prince Waleed bin Talal, pay TV platform Showtime Arabia, and National Geographic, which is handling U.S. distribution.
For a homeless nation, Palestine has had a strong presence in Cannes this year. One of the favorites in the competition was The Time That Remains, by Elia Suleiman. It, too, is a bittersweet portrait of a Palestinian family, but its arty formalism bears no resemblance to Amreeka‘s homespun realism. Suleiman portrays half a century of his family as a series of absurdist, deadpan tableaus. Each shot is a static frame. And all the action is subtly choreographed, like a minimalist modern dance piece. As Suleiman explains, “The film is inspired by my father’s diaries, starting from when he was a resistant fighter in 1948, and by my mother’s letters to family members who were forced to leave the country since then.” Unlike Amreeka, this portrait of Palestinians who have not left isn’t about redempton, but about eternal contradiction.