The Arab American Story Through Film

In films The Baby Doll Night and Amreeka, directors Adel Adeeb and Cherien Dabis offer both Arab and Arab American perspective of America. These perspective interact with the ideas of otherness, American exceptionalism, and what it means to be Arab American. Although these two films are quiet different cinematically, they present similar views of America through their different characters. Although they presents the topics in different ways, both films highlight the struggles of being classified as an other, discuss the story of American exceptionalism with regards to the war in Iraq, and what it means to be Arab American.
Both films throughly engage with the issue of otherness in a similar fashion. The concept of otherness caters to the binary definitions of an us versus them mentality; it is a term that dehumanizes and separates the us -in this case America- from the other – in this case both Arab Americans and Arabs. The concept of otherness in both films represents a kind boundary that must be overcome in order for the characters to achieve some kind of peace. In the film, Amreeka, this concept of otherness can be seen through the characterization of Fadi. Fadi is a Palestinian who has recently moved to America with his mother and now lives with his aunt’s family. Despite the fact that Fadi is eager to embrace a new Arab American identity, he is constantly faced with the struggles of being labeled as “other” particularly in school. This concept of other begins with his wardrobe as his cousin immediately dismisses his clothes as too FOB or fresh of the boat, and continues as he is bullied and harassed at school despite his best efforts to overcome this brand of other that has been placed on him. In the end of the film, he is seen as embracing and overcoming this term by refusing to fit into the binaries that otherness has placed on him. In the film The Baby Doll Night, otherness is dealt with similarly as a term though the circumstances are quiet different. The film takes place in the Arab world, and the viewer finds that despite this fact the concept of otherness is still a major issue of the film. I would argue in this film the concept of otherness does not center on a single chapter, but rather a more general examination of the relationship between the Arab world and America in response to the question that General Peter keeps asking which is “Why do the hate us?” I think that the director of the film was trying to make several arguments with this question, but Sarah’s understanding of the situation as America having always viewed Arabs as the dehumanized others provides the viewer with a greater understanding of otherness in this piece. Similarly to Amreeka, otherness is a brand that strips one of the power to decide and forces one to live within the binary. Sarah realizes that until both Arabs and Americans learn to place such terms aside there will be no peace. Both films engage with the concept of otherness as a binary cage that pits the us against the them and show the viewer that this binary must be overcome for peace of any kind to be achieved.
Although the perspectives of American exceptionalism with regard to the war in Iraq are presented very differently in these two films, I would argue that the directors strove to present similar messages. The film The Baby Doll Night dealt a lot more with the Iraqi war than Amreeka yet both managed to discusses the influence of American exceptionalism in this conflict. In Amreeka, this discussion was presented as just that, a class room discussion in Fadi’s social sciences class in high school. In this environment the voice of America exceptionalism was presented predominantly through a student in the class room whose brother was fighting in Iraq, while the rejection of this idea was voiced by Fadi’s cousin Selma. In the discussion, the idea of American exceptionalism comes out through the male student’s claim that his bother is over there fighting to give the Iraqi people freedom which caters to the exceptionalist concept that America has a responsibility to spread democracy across the world. Selma rejects this claim as the voice of the other stating that if the student truly believes that he is blind to the realities of the world. Although presented in a much more gruesome reality, The Baby Doll Night offers a similar perspective. In this film, the viewer sees the cost of American exceptionalism in the bloody reality of the Iraqi war. The message regarding the destructive and naive nature of American exceptionalism in this film can be understood through an interaction that Awadin has with a Iraqi taxi driver. The driver says that no, the Arab people didn’t love Suddam Hussien, but when he was in charge he understood things the Americans never even considered, and when he was in charge there wasn’t the bloody war they were living through in the film. On the other hand there is General Peter who serves as the voice of American exceptionalism in the film; he repeatedly argues that the Americans are fighting to bring democracy which he sees as an American duty. Although different, both of these films give the viewer the message that American exceptionalism, particularly in the Iraqi war, is a dangerous nativity that is put onto the American people who either can’t or won’t see the true cost of this idea.
A final similarity between these two films can be seen in the examination of what it means to be an Arab American. Amreeka deals a lot with this idea, particularly with the characterization of Raghda who has been living as an Arab American for fifteen years at the start of the film. Raghda is presented as extremely homesick and melancholy sick of her live in America and longing to return to Palestine. She has idealized her former live in Palestine and routinely makes trips to the Arab markets in an effort to feel connected with her home land. Although Amreeka also offers other perspectives on what it means to be an Arab American the characterization provides one strong similarity between the two films. In The Baby Doll Night, the story of Layla Corrie represents a similar perspective of what it means to be an Arab American. Layla is a news correspondent who is sympathetic to the cause of the Palestine in the Arab-Israeli conflict; in the film, she is run over by an Israeli tank. Although these two character might not seem similar at first, they present a similar message on what it means to be an Arab American. In these two cases, the Arab American identity is synonymous with destruction. In Raghda’s case this destruction is one of happiness and belonging, and in the case of Layla this destruction is one of life in its entirety. Although these are two very different stories, I would argue the directors’ messages were similar in both, there can be a successful Arab American story, Housam in The Baby Doll Night and Muna in Amreeka, but there can also be destruction and sorrow. In this way, both of these films presented similar perspectives on what it means to be Arab American.
The films The Baby Doll Night and Amreeka are two very different films that follow different story lines, yet they present similar messages and critiques regarding the concept of otherness, the story of American exceptionalism in the Iraqi war, and what it means to be an Arab America. Through characters such as Sarah, Awadin, and General Peter, or Fadi, Raghda, and Selma these two films leave the viewer with different emotions, but strong similar messages. The use of these different perspectives to provide similar conclusions makes a strong argument for the universality of these concepts.

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