A short film set in occupied Palestine – Farah Nabulsi’s The Present - has been shortlisted for the Oscars. Given the increased political isolation and setbacks Palestinians have faced throughout the Trump years in the Middle East and in the West, the international kudos and exposure The Present has enjoyed to date must be an upbeat and unexpected change for many.
It is a simple, relatable story of a labourer named Yusuf (played by Saleh Bakri), who sets out one day with his young daughter, Yasmine (played by Mariam Kanj), to get an anniversary gift for his wife.
An unsettling sense of what their celebratory outing might entail is conveyed through the harrowing, claustrophobic opening scenes of Yusuf’s daily grind of getting to and from work through Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem – the one scene that was filmed at the actual checkpoint to capture the inhumanity imposed on those who are forced to use it.
Through Nabulsi’s tight, nuanced writing and direction, the characters adeptly show what Israeli checkpoints mean for the tens of thousands of Palestinians who must pass through them daily. Her aim behind the film was to expose the indignity and violence endured daily by connecting with audiences on a human and emotional level, and that has been effectively achieved as the accolades attest.
Not bad for a directorial debut. And even more impressive for someone who has come to filmmaking via a radical shift from a successful career in the corporate world. To appreciate the journey that Nabulsi has taken to get to The Present, it is intriguing to rewind into her past.
“I was born, raised, everything UK, and I can tell you there was hardly any political discourse in my house. My parents weren’t about the politics at all. But they never let me forget the roots of where they were from and so essentially where I was from. I never had this identity crisis – I was British and Palestinian,” Nabulsi says.
Her parents had an Arabic teacher come each Saturday, which she and her sister reluctantly endured, Nabulsi says – and they visited family in Palestine regularly.
“As children, we would go to Palestine, and I think that laid certain seeds – politically, no – but it laid certain attachments, certain connections to the people, the land, to friends we made, to our ancestral home, quite literally. I remember my grandfather’s house and the courtyard where we’d tell stories around a fire, and my aunt would squeeze fresh lemonade. So I have that, I did have that, and I think that did lay seeds.”
Those family visits stopped when the first Intifada broke out and never resumed – something that clearly upsets Nabulsi.
“I am a bit annoyed about that phase, that 25-year gap where I do somewhat blame the stigma my parents have or had from the time of the Intifada. It comes from a place of wanting to protect us and their own inherent trauma. But I don’t get why we didn’t go back after ’88 – why shouldn’t we have?”
‘Seeing the reality’
Fast-forward to a family of her own and a solid foundation in the corporate world. In 2013 Nabulsi decided it was time to take her own kids to Palestine (her parents still opposed the idea of visiting). That experience was utterly transformative, she says.
“It hit me so hard about all these things I thought I understood. But when you read a book or watch a documentary, or you listen to the news, especially if you live in the West and there are a lot of misrepresentations and very little context in the media, of course – but I’d like to think I’d gone beyond that. But there was no substitute for really going and seeing – really seeing the reality.”
Speaking to locals whose lives were adversely affected by checkpoints and experiencing them herself played a key part in that experience, Nabulsi says.
“You can portray checkpoints with all the facts and figures – a woman can give birth at a checkpoint; people can’t get to work or whatever. But you go stand at a checkpoint, it’s a very different perception to what the facts and figures provide. It was this life-changing trip, it had such an impact on me and I came back and battled with it for two years.”
Nabulsi transcribed her experiences and reflections from that visit but the question of what she could do to make a meaningful difference to challenging that reality persisted. Supporting charities and solidarity organisations doing “incredible work” was one option, she says, but she felt there was more.
“What about this layer of engagement – I don’t mean on the mental level because there’s a lot of that available – but how do you engage people through the heart? Ultimately that’s what I am interested in. I want to speak to people from my heart to their heart, as opposed to talking facts and figures. And studies show that if you can bring people to understand and feel, and address them through their hearts, you have a much higher chance of moving them away from their positions or even changing their minds.”
Film seemed to her one of the best ways to achieve this. Cue a career change into film-making.
“For me, it just became so obvious that that’s the way I wanted to engage,” says Nabulsi. “And I’ve loved film since forever. Anyone who knew me as a teenager knows that I am exactly where I am supposed to be right now and that felt completely right. It doesn’t mean that the journey I went on wasn’t something I didn’t enjoy – it was actually very helpful in many ways.”
Since turning to film in 2015, Nabulsi has created an advocacy platform, oceansofinjustice.com, and produced four short films, including The Present, each with a different human rights focus on Palestine. Her first three were based on her writings from that transformative trip to Palestine and are stylistically very different from The Present – “more experimental, more portraits”, she says, and were produced before she had formally trained as a filmmaker.
Between more screenings and Q&As around The Present, Nabulsi is currently also working on her first full-length feature film – “a character-driven drama-thriller about loss and self-absolution and parenthood, set in the geopolitical landscape of Palestine”, she says, which again casts Saleh Bakri in the lead role.
Whether or not The Present makes the final cut for the Oscars on March 15, Nabulsi remains ecstatic about the level of exposure it has received and the global audiences it is reaching – and stimulating people across the world to understand the issues better so they can get involved in actions that will contribute to change. And she is working on her feature with the same intensity and sense of purpose, Nabulsi says.
“I’ve got the bug and I’m forging ahead where it feels very right.”