What's the difference between being an American and being in America? The post-9/11 indie drama The Citizen grapples with that question, dealing with a Lebanese immigrant named Ibrahim (actor Khaled Nabawy, in an affecting performance) who touches down at JFK Airport on the ominous date of September 10th, 2001. In the ensuing years, we follow Ibrahim as he attempts to gain citizenship in a country grown suspicious of dark-skinned foreigners to a toxic degree.
The Citizen counts as one of those films that, despite several obvious flaws, manages to stay intriguing and watchable. The plot unfolds in pat, predictable, soap opera-ish fashion, the characters are very simplistic good/evil archetypes, yet director-screenwriter Sam Kadi has done some laudable work on a small budget. Despite often coming across like a clunky '90s made-for-TV movie, it's actually kind of touching.
Opening in a courtroom setting where the protagonist, Ibrahim, is on trial, The Citizen takes us back to when the character first emigrated to the U.S. - and where his troubles began. Despite getting grilled at the airport, where his cousin failed to pick him up, Ibrahim is granted a green card visa and released with just a few dollars in his pocket. Arriving at a fleabag Brooklyn motel, he shelters a fellow tenant escaping an abusive relationship. The streetwise Diane (Agnes Bruckner) thanks Ibrahim by taking him on a whirlwind tour of Manhattan, where they hang around Times Square and attend an anti-Bush rally. The following morning, Ibrahim awakens to news of planes being flown into the World Trade Center. Eager to help out, Ibrahim is surprised to find the streets filled with violent anti-immigrant zealots. Mo (Rizwan Manji), a sympathetic Middle-Eastern shopkeeper, sternly warns Ibrahim that times will get much tougher for their kind. Sure enough, Ibrahim promptly gets arrested and imprisoned by federal agents suspicious of the man's tenuous connection with the 9/11 terrorists (he shares the same name as one of the hijackers).
When Ibrahim gets released after six months imprisonment, The Citizen becomes an accelerated, improbable series of ups-and-downs for its central character. Diane takes him in, but the outside world isn't so readily accepting. He seeks work and finds rampant discrimination; Diane gets him a job working at Mo's convenience store. He takes naturalization classes and flirts with a fellow student. He comes to the defense of a man getting beaten by anti-Semitic thugs and becomes a media hero. Eventually, Ibrahim's citizenship application is rejected and Feds file a lawsuit, prompting him to seek out the services of an immigration rights-specialist attorney played by Cary Elwes. Diverting enough, sure, but I couldn't help thinking that the film would have run much more smoothly had it focused on the casual, day-to-day adversity in Ibriham's life. Besides, all that soapy drama gets in the way of the nuanced acting from Nabawy, Bruckner, Manji and Brian Marable, who plays a homeless man whom Ibrahim befriends.
Ultra-earnest and unnecessarily complex, The Citizen still manages to be an affecting watch. While many aspects of the script could have been pruned down or eliminated entirely (like the trial scenes, which are directed with a thudding lack of imagination), the character of Ibriham and Khaled Nabawy's nuanced work make it worthwhile for those who enjoy their social commentary with heaping helpings of bald-faced melodrama.
Monterey Video's DVD edition of The Citizen sports an agreeable 1.85:1 anamorphic picture that is clean and pleasant to look at. Typical of modestly budgeted indie productions, the film has been photographed digitally with lots of post-production color filtering and blown-out whites on the lighter side of the spectrum.
The film's English and Arabic-language soundtrack is supplied with a simple 5.1 Surround soundtrack. While the Surround mix isn't too impressive, it's a fine listen with clean dialogue and well-integrated sound effects (the music is mixed in a little too loudly, however). Though it isn't accessible from the main menu, English closed-captioning is also provided.
The disc contains about 25 minutes' worth of Interviews with the principal cast members, production designer Stephen Legler, and writer-director Sam Kadi. Trailers for this and a few other Monterey releases are also included.
While indie drama The Citizen promises a searing, gritty look at post-9/11 racial politics, it mainly winds up being a simple, liberal-biased screed on pursuing the American Dream. That's not necessarily a bad thing, however - the drama may be predictable and not particularly insightful on the immigration experience, but this unapologetically feel-good film is made with a lot of heart with some good performances by the cast. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.