“White Eye” and “The Present,” two films that spotlight painful power dynamics in Israel and the West Bank through the lens of intimate personal stories, will face off Sunday night at the 93rd Academy Awards.
The movies, one written and directed by Israel’s Tomer Shushan and the other by British Palestinian Farah Nabulsi, are among the five Oscar nominees in the category of Best Live Action Short Film, chosen from 174 entries for the prize.
“The Present,” a 25-minute film currently streaming on Netflix, tells the story of Yusef, a Palestinian husband and father trying to buy an anniversary gift for his wife with his young daughter Yasmine. It opens with a look at Yusef’s daily trek to work in Israel, shot at the infamous Checkpoint 300 near Bethlehem, a crossing through which thousands of Palestinians crowd through a narrow, caged corridor each morning.
Yusuf’s attempt to complete such a simple task as shopping for a gift for his wife highlights the ways in which the Israeli occupation’s system of checkpoints foils and frustrates him. Even more disturbing, his treatment at the hands of immature, callous, and cruel Israeli soldiers – whom Nabulsi portrays as heartless and sadistic – dehumanizes him.
Nabulsi, an outspoken Palestinian political activist, left a career as a stockbroker to devote herself to filmmaking. “The Present” is her first attempt at narrative filmmaking, following several documentaries critical of the occupation and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
The short film scored a major triumph earlier this month, winning the prize for best British short film at the prestigious British Academy Film Awards, or BAFTAs: the United Kingdom’s equivalent of an Oscar. In her acceptance speech, Nabulsi said that “anyone who has seen ‘The Present’… would know why I dedicate this award to the people of Palestine for whom freedom and equality is long, long overdue.”
“White Eye” strikes a more nuanced, less black-and-white note. The 20-minute film was written and directed by 33-year-old Israeli Tomer Shushan, who shot it in a single night.
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The film follows Omer, a young man who discovers the bicycle that was stolen from him a month earlier. It is locked behind a meat-packing facility that employs some of the thousands of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan who populate south Tel Aviv.
Omer focuses on recovering his stolen property, sawing off the bike’s lock, when he is confronted by Yunes, the Eritrean man who currently owns the bike. Yunes explains that he is not the thief – he bought the bike and cannot afford to lose it without a replacement. He begs Omer to settle the matter between them “like human beings.” Instead, Omer decides to call the police, oblivious to the peril Yunes would be placed in as the result.
It is this blindness – what Americans refer to as “white privilege” – that is the film’s titular “White Eye.” Shushan acknowledged the flaw in himself after he, like Omer, was consumed with recovering his own stolen bike, valuing the fate of an object over that of a human being.
“I hope that after watching this movie, a person will ask himself what he would do in such a situation, or from that point on, when a person is facing someone weaker, he will try to look at the situation from a different angle and not just from his own place and ego,” Shushan told the independent film website Indie Activity.
Neither “The Present” nor “White Eye” is heavily favored to take home the coveted Oscar statuette. The short film expected to triumph in the competition is "Two Distant Strangers,” about a young Black man who keeps reliving a deadly confrontation with a white police officer.
The theme of the American film strikes a nerve in a year in which the United States – and the world – has been consumed by the death of George Floyd at the hands of the white police officer Derek Chauvin. The filmmaker, Travon Free was inspired, like Nabulsi and Shushan, by a harsh and disturbing reality. He wrote the script for “Two Distant Strangers” a month after Floyd’s murder.
The other main contenders in the category are “Feeling Through,” the story of a connection between a teenager and a deaf and blind man; and “The Letter Room,” about a corrections officer who gets involved in the intimate lives of his prisoners through the letters they write, and is transformed by what he discovers.