Review written for the Doha Film Institute website.
Veteran actor Khaled Nabawy has been one of the leading Egyptian stars in bridging roles between Egypt and Hollywood (‘Kingdom of Heaven’, ‘Fair Game’). Since his discovery by the late Youssef Chahine in ‘The Emigrant’, he’s been aspiring for an international career and ‘The Citizen’ is the concrete proof of his ambition.
In the film Nabawy plays Ibrahim, a Lebanese who won the American Green Card Lottery and arrives to New York a day before the tragedy of 9/11 in 2001. He’s here to fulfill the American dream, something he’s been visualising since childhood. His cousin fails to pick him up form the airport and he finds himself renting a room in a cheap hotel and not able to contact his relative.
While trying to escape being battered by her boyfriend next door, Diane accidently (Agnes Bruckner) hides in Ibrahim’s room. He very kindly shows protective Arab ethics that impress the young woman and a long lasting friendship is quickly formed. She becomes his tour guide in this big city, helping him find his way around and a job while she’s learning to make Baba Ghannouj. Then a series of unfortunate events follow the innocent immigrant, who despite all the trouble still believes that America is where he belongs.
The film is an attempt to please Hollywood by promoting in a very obvious way the American way of life, and probably showing that Arab and Muslim culture carry with them a package of ethics that can only serve the American community. The Saint-like Ibrahim as the ideal American citizen appears more like an apologetic plea to erase misconceptions both cultures have about each other. After all- according to the film – America is the best place to fulfill any ambition. In other words, the film is more American than the Americans.
When portraying Arabs in films, Hollywood often fails in creating a precise character. They rely on the looks and completely disregard language and dialect accuracies. How many times have we seen a Moroccan talk Egyptian and vice versa. Surprisingly, Lebanese Ibrahim (played by an Egyptian actor) didn’t manage either at perfecting the dialect, even the cultural nuances are generalised or far from being accurate. He brings with him from home Lebanese sweets – which is true to many – but not the traditional ones easily found at the airport. Also the stereotypical image of a Muslim Arab is incarnated in Ibrahim without the terrorist side. If you were strange to the region, you’d think that Lebanon is a Muslim conservative and fanatic country.
‘The Citizen’ can be viewed as the passport Nabawy is relying on for a career in Hollywood. Unfortunately, it is not his best performance knowing that he’s capable of much more with the right direction. But nothing in the script supports him to build his character. It sounds more like a long moral lesson or a booklet on ‘How to be a good American citizen’.
The film that was screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival showed mixed opinions. If you’ve watched the film, we’d like you to share your thoughts with us.