I almost recommended Under the Same Sun—a well-intentioned but inescapably clunky Israeli-Palestian coproduction screening twice next week at the Gene Siskel Film Center—on the basis of the remarkable short film preceding it at both screenings. Running only 25 minutes, Amina Waheed’s Corner Stores manages to say a good deal about inner-city America in general and Englewood in particular, and it delivers a moving character portrait to boot. This documentary centers on Falah Farhoudeh (aka “Abu Muhammad”), a Middle Eastern emigre in his late 60s who’s operated a convenience store in Englewood for about a decade. It’s quickly established that Farhoudeh is no mere business owner but a crucial part of the community, providing an ex-convict with a job, giving food to customers even when they can’t pay, and offering good counsel to anyone who wants it. In one surprising moment, Waheed shows the black proprietors of a nearby barbershop sharing Arabic terms they’ve learned from Farhoudeh—an unexpected and very moving display of solidarity.
Farhoudeh is an inspiring figure, but what makes Corner Stores truly eye-opening is the way Waheed contextualizes his story within her portrait of Chicago as a whole. The movie begins with community organizer Shamar Hemphill describing Englewood as “a third-world situation in a first-world environment.” Setting the stage for the movie’s introduction of Farhoudeh, Hemphill explains, “There aren’t many grocery stores in a six-mile radius, so the corner stores and the gas stations became like replacement grocery stores. For some people in Englewood, that’s all they have.” The subsequent montage illustrates his assessment with shots of boarded-up storefronts and public thoroughfares in serious disrepair. Blighted urban areas like this are often described euphemistically as food deserts, yet Waheed’s images make the term seem frighteningly literal. She doesn’t need to elaborate on the interviewees’ references to gang activity in the area—we can see plainly that Englewood resembles a war zone.
In this context, Farhoudeh’s store represents an oasis. Hemphill describes it as one of the few safe spaces in the neighborhood, and the warm conviviality between owner, employees, and customers stands in stark contrast to the cold environment outside. In another point of contrast, Waheed sometimes cuts away to shots of downtown skyscrapers at night—though only miles away from Englewood, they might as well be on a different planet. When Farhoudeh recalls fleeing from Palestine after the Six-Day War of 1967, the images he conjures of war-torn landscapes feel less out-of-place than the skyscrapers. Without saying so explicitly, Waheed makes a strong argument that Farhoudeh identifies with his customers because they understand what it’s like to be refugees.