Friday, February 13, 2009

American East (Distant Horizons, Zahra Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment DVD, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran us a quite interesting movie I’d got at a shopping run to Vons, American East, which is not at all the sort of movie you expect to find in a supermarket; mostly you get blockbuster titles featuring major stars, occasionally public-domain or closeout items, but hardly something with only one even quasi-major name (Tony Shalhoub), which seems not to have had a theatrical release at all (or, if it did, only a very minor one) and which is about a highly controversial and touchy subject: the oppression of Arab-Americans in the name of the “war on terror.” The film is set in 2005, during a so-called “red” terror alert — which I imagined as something even more stringent than it’s depicted in this film; it’s never happened but my understanding is if it did virtually the whole country would be on lockdown.

The central character is Mustafa Marzoke (Sayed Badrea, who also co-wrote the script with director Hesham Issawi), an Egyptian émigré who runs a Middle Eastern diner called Habibi, and the combination of family members and hangers-on at the restaurant who make up his entire circle: his sister Leila (Tay Blessey), who works as a nurse at a local hospital and is being heavily cruised by one of the doctors but who’s also engaged to a man from Egypt whom she barely remembers from her childhood but whose marriage to her is crucial because of a deal involving Mustafa’s ancestral homestead back home; his grade-school age son Mohammed (Richard Chagoury) who’s disgusted being the only Muslim at his public school and who wants the family to have a Christmas tree and stop practicing this weird religion everyone associates with terrorism; his driver Omar (Kais Nashif), who’s working on an acting career but is getting more and more pissed off that every role he’s asked to play is as an unmotivated terrorist; Murad (Anthony Azizi), a nonpaying customer at the restaurant who watches al-Jazeera constantly and whose virtually sole mode of conversation is obscenity-laced tirades against Jews in general and Israelis in particular over the occupation of Palestine; and Sam, Mustafa’s Jewish friend, whom he’s trying to get as a financial backer in a major expansion of the restaurant into a fancy Middle Eastern-themed establishment.

At times the movie tracks so close to the plot of E. L. Doctorow’s 1970’s novel Ragtime (particularly in the character arc of Omar) I couldn’t help but wonder if the parallels had been intentional, but though some of the plot devices are either wince-inducingly clichéd or flatly unbelievable, others work quite well. Certainly the film accomplishes one thing it set out to do: it shows just how much Arab-Americans have been stereotyped as “terrorists” since 9/11 and have to live their lives in a constant state of being suspected, a theme which kicks off from the moment the movie opens in an airport, where Mustafa has gone to meet his cousin (the one who’s supposed to marry his sister) who’s just flown in from Egypt. He goes running through the airport screaming, “Mohammed!” — he’s just calling his son, who’s got lost, but that gets him picked up by two FBI agents and taken to a secret location for interrogation, and though he’s released the FBI puts him under permanent surveillance from then on and ends up arresting him in the restaurant in connection with Omar’s rampage.

American East is quite well done and generally moving, though it’s also a bit too long and afflicted with a bad case of brown; the cinematographer (not credited on is yet another one of those annoying modern movie D.P.’s who sees the world through dirty brown-colored glasses and seems dementedly determined to photograph the movie with as little of the visible spectrum as possible, the sort of thing that makes me wonder if they’re going to use so little color anyway why they don’t just go ahead and film it in black-and-white.