‘Why Should We Ask Israel Permission to Film Its Illegal Activity?’

Oscar nominated British-Palestinian director Farah Nabulsi's acclaimed short film 'The Present' exposes Palestinian life under occupation. In an interview with Haaretz she explains how she got a deal with Netflix and what drives her to tell the stories of the powerless

Director Farah Nabulsi. 'I didn’t linger on permissions or not permissions.'
Director Farah Nabulsi. 'I didn’t linger on permissions or not permissions.'Credit: Philistine Films
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Two of the five movies that competed last month for the Academy Award for Best Short Film were filmed on the same small, disputed strip of land in the Middle East. Tomer Shushan’s “White Eye” was filmed in Israel, and “The Present,” by British-Palestinian director Farah Nabulsi, was filmed in the Palestinian Authority.

An Israeli soldier checks the identity cards of Palestinian women at a checkpoint near the town of Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, this week.Credit: HAZEM BADER - AFP

Granted, the American film “Two Distant Strangers” ultimately won the coveted prize. But for Nabulsi, being nominated was not just the climax of a dizzying string of successes that “The Present” has enjoyed over the past year, but also an opportunity to provide a prestigious platform for her people, who are forced to cope with the Israeli occupation on a daily basis.

Over the last year, “The Present” has been screened at dozens of international festivals and won some 30 prizes, including the BAFTA award (the “British Oscar”) for best short film. It also snagged an international distribution contract with Netflix, which not only provided its creators with a hefty sum of money, but will allow the film to reach the living rooms of hundreds of millions of subscribers worldwide.

Not surprisingly, the 24-minute movie doesn’t depict the Israeli occupation as pleasant or humane.

The plot is about a Palestinian man named Yusef (Salah Bakri of “The Band’s Visit”) who is forced to pass through an Israel Defense Forces checkpoint every morning on his way from the West Bank to Israel. One day, he and his daughter head toward the checkpoint to buy his wife an anniversary present – a new refrigerator. But this romantic gesture is disrupted by the soldiers there, who abuse him and detain him for hours in a kind of cage for unconvincing security reasons, then turn the trip back home into an unnecessary nightmare as well.

A poster for 'The Present.' The film was nominated for an Academy Award this year.Credit: Philistine Films

One of the film’s first scenes shows Yusef crowding into the checkpoint together with hundreds of other Palestinians very early in the morning, before sunrise. Some are pushed into a side corridor, others climb the bars surrounding them on every side; all are waiting to be extracted from this exhausting and humiliating wait.

In a Zoom interview, Nabulsi tells Haaretz that the scene was filmed at a real IDF checkpoint, Checkpoint 300 near Bethlehem. She and the film crew arrived before dawn, and actor Bakri crowded in among the hundreds of Palestinians workers who pass through it every day on their way to work.

The cameras show him becoming part of this river of humanity, which inches forward with agonizing slowness in a crush of people that’s hard to watch. Unlike other directors whose movies have been shot at checkpoints, Nabulsi didn’t bother to coordinate the filming with the army. (Israeli filmmakers must do so.)

“We didn’t ask permission,” she says. “To me it was documentary-style, in the sense that we are going to film a reality. The only ‘fiction’ here was Yusef, played by Bakri. We put him in that checkpoint, it was about 3 A.M. when we started, and I kind of had a whole philosophical take on it: Who does one approach for permission for such a thing.”

'When you go and see the settlements all over the West Bank, it’s really heavy. It is pretty entrenched, pretty systematic, intense, and on many levels very very wrong'

Adds Nabulsi: “It’s like a debate. Is it something one needs to ask to film, considering it is such a monstrous construction and what it represents and what it’s about? To me that particular checkpoint and checkpoints like this are so inhumane. And they are constructed in a way that takes no account of the people who are subjected to them. If you are asking the IDF for permission to film that, I mean they are essentially illegally occupying an area of land, you are asking an illegal occupier to film its illegal occupation. You don’t necessarily take permission, you are exposing something, you are presenting something raw and real. I didn’t linger on permissions or not permissions.”

Producer Ossama Bawardi, left, British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi and Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri arrive at the Oscars in LA, this April.Credit: CHRIS PIZZELLO - AFP

This scene could have been left out without any damage to the story, Nabulsi noted. Nevertheless, she insisted on filming it.

“But you wouldn’t quite understand who this person is if you didn’t get to understand what he has to go through every day to get to work,” she explained. “We stayed in an area where we didn’t film any of the military. It’s a massive checkpoint, and the military are much more inside, and we filmed on the outsides, in the Bethlehem side.”

'You don’t necessarily take permission, you are exposing something, you are presenting something raw and real'

For the other scenes in “The Present” that take place at a checkpoint, the film’s art crew created their own set, which was so convincing that Nabulsi said it frightened Palestinians who passed by.

Residents of the nearby villages started to think the crew was building a real Israeli checkpoint there. “Until I felt terrible about it and sent people to explain what we were doing,” she said. “On the other hand, I was also happy, because I thought to myself that if Palestinians thought this was a real, authentic checkpoint, then we evidently did good work on the set we built.”

‘A ton of bricks’

Nabulsi was born in 1978 to a Palestinian mother and an Egyptian-Palestinian father. Her parents met in London, where she was born and raised. Until a few years ago, she worked as an investment adviser. But then she decided to change direction and dedicate herself to a career in filmmaking.

Over the last five years, Nabulsi has written and produced three short films. A glance at their titles is enough to understand their subject matter and point of view. In 2016, she wrote and produced “Today They Took My Son,” followed a year later by “Oceans of Injustice” and then in 2019 by “Nightmare of Gaza.”

A trailer for 'The Present.'

Only after this trio did she decide she was ready to direct a film by herself and she began work on “The Present.”

Her dedication to the Palestinian cause began following a visit to her homeland seven years ago. “This was my first visit to Palestine as an adult,” she said. “My heritage is Palestinian so I understood the sort of circumstances on the ground, that of military occupation, but honestly when I went there I was completely blown away.”

To explain the force of the blow she suffered while in the West Bank, she used a familiar expression: “It hit me like a ton of bricks, it’s a British expression.”

“When I first returned to London, I started to write therapeutically, personally about what I’ve seen and felt. It took me a couple of years until I decided that I really wanted to express myself creatively and wanted to tell these human stories. And so I adapted those initial writings and produced them,” Nabulsi said. “And then it brings us to the present, I’m already in the film industry at this point, and you kind of go where your creativity takes you. I was inspired to write this story initially based on my own experiences at these checkpoints and meeting Palestinians there, like old people humiliated at these checkpoints, men humiliated next to their children. And I came up with this initial story based on a conversation I had with a young man who lives 100 meters from a checkpoint.”

A scene from “The Present.” Credit: Philistine Films

That visit changed her life: “I would say it was an accumulation of lots of events and lots of observations. It was the overall experience that motivated me to express myself and to express those voices that in many ways had been silenced. Whether it was the separation walls that plough through Palestinian lands and towns – it’s not on the Green Line, and very clearly not. Whether it was refugee camps I visited, whether it was sipping tea on the ruins of homes that have been demolished. Whether it was chatting with a woman, whose 13-year-old son was taken in the middle of the night. There were just so many things, and you kind of get hit by it.

“You can read about this, sure, you can watch the news. But when you go and see the settlements all over the West Bank, not on the periphery, it’s really heavy. It is pretty entrenched, pretty systematic, intense, and on many levels very very wrong. It was so profound on a massive scale.”

“The Present” is based on Nabulsi’s personal experiences at IDF checkpoints during that 2014 trip and those that followed, as well as on other people’s experiences, which she witnessed. She said she saw IDF soldiers humiliating elderly people, abusing men who tried to cross into Israel on the other side, and demonstrating indifference to the tens of thousands of people who had to wait for hours, with no apparent reason or explanation.

Her movie has touched many hearts worldwide. But to Israeli eyes – which have already seen many films about the situation in the territories in general and at the checkpoints in particular – it looks a bit simplistic.

Bakri (in a praiseworthy performance) plays a sensitive, devoted, pained man in a warm, loving family. In contrast, the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint appear in a one-dimensional display of cruelty, hardheartedness and indifference. There is one soldier who tries to protest the Palestinians’ treatment at the checkpoint, but he is quickly silenced.

The reality at IDF checkpoints certainly isn’t all sweetness and light. Nevertheless, a bit more nuance could have made “The Present” more interesting and authentic, and helped it avoid portraying a simplistic dichotomy between good and evil.

Perhaps critical films about a specific situation should be made by people who live in that place and know the situation from up close, on a daily basis, rather than by a foreign director?

A scene from “The Present.” Credit: Philistine Films

“Yes and no. At the back of one’s mind you hope and wonder if you have done justice, if you’ve portrayed something in the best way possible, that the experiences of those who are actually suffering these injustices have been represented correctly, justly, appropriately, tastefully.

“The feedback I’ve received from Palestinians who live in Palestine and experience this reality personally were ones of gratitude. They felt they’d been heard and seen. I get messages all the time. I can open my Instagram account now, I’ll certainly have 100 more messages like that. And that’s obviously a relief, because you don’t want to portray someone’s pain, humiliation or frustration incorrectly.

“I feel that I was there and connected with enough people that I can carry empathy with me, and some of those things I also experienced personally. Aside from that, many Palestinians would be happy to express themselves in a similar way, but they don’t have the tools, or the time, or the financing needed to do so. I earned respect and gratitude for giving expression to what they are unable to express.”

You have managed to do something very few succeed to do – get a Neflix distribution agreement and an Oscar nomination. Do you think this broad exposure can help the film’s message to penetrate and somehow influence the situation here?

“I’m certain it can, and also should. Film is a very powerful medium in terms of communication and the ability to tell stories, and through it, you can depict the reality of life and show injustice in a powerful way. And if this makes people want to understand this reality in greater depth – that’s obviously wonderful.

“Nevertheless, rather like Mother Teresa said, I can’t change the world by myself; I can only throw a stone into the water and create a lot of ripples. So this film resonates with people who watch it and sparks a conversation – for instance, through interviews like this one. And that’s not a bad thing.”