DUBAI: As the war in Gaza stretches into its second month, “The Teacher,” the feature debut of Oscar-nominated British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi, which screened in competition at the Red Sea International Film Festival this week, could hardly have had a timelier airing in the region.
“The Teacher” is the latest entry in the canon of films chronicling the contemporary Palestinian experience under occupation, and dives into many themes that have been the subject of global discussion as the conflict rages on. In it, a member of the Israeli Defense Forces is held hostage in the West Bank as his parents fight for his release, international aid workers grapple with their role in supporting justice, and a seasoned schoolteacher struggles to keep his community together as local settlers wage a campaign of violence.
But for Nabulsi, who was herself put into the global spotlight after the success of her debut short film “The Present” in 2020, “The Teacher” was never intended as a political statement. First and foremost, the film exists as an exploration of the human condition, as ordinary people are forced to contend with extraordinary circumstances. Its meaning, ultimately, is left for the viewer to decide.
“I did not make this film with a message,” Nabulsi tells Arab News. “I didn’t even set out to make a political film, but, by default, any film about Palestine is going to be considered political somehow. It can certainly be interpreted as including statements about the socio-political environment we exist in, but it is storytelling first and foremost, not an essay. I’m more interested in the individual journeys of people in that landscape, the human dynamics and the emotional experiences.
“If I can create one moment that an audience member is left contemplating long after the film ends, if I’ve created one character whose humanity forges a genuine connection to this situation for the viewer, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do,” she continues. “If the film does contain a deeper meaning, it should be a personal one that the viewer comes to on their own. That’s what exists in the movies that inspired me, and that’s what I want in my movies, too.”
While Nabulsi did enter filmmaking with the idea of highlighting the plight of the Palestinian people — turning her back on investment banking after an illuminating trip to the West Bank — she could never have predicted the journey her first short would take. “The Present” garnered awards at nearly every festival in which it screened, and ended up earning a BAFTA, as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Film. Soon after that, it was trending worldwide on Netflix, with former CIA director John Brennan even penning a New York Times opinion piece about it entitled “Why Biden Must Watch This Palestinian Movie.”
“I came to filmmaking late, but the deeper I got into it, the more it became clear to me that the industry has a graveyard of brilliant films that no one will ever see — films that people poured their hearts and souls into, but that, for one reason or another, never captured the world’s attention,” Nabulsi says. “It was astounding what happened to ‘The Present,’ but I’m keenly aware that I can’t rest on my previous accolades and expect the same formula to be repeated each time. And if I try to pander to that same audience in order to provoke the same result, it will do me no good either.
“In approaching a follow up, I had to unburden myself from all of that success. I’ll be grateful forever for what that film gave me, but to hold myself to that with every subsequent endeavor would be ridiculous,” she continues. “In order tell the next story, I had to focus on doing justice to these characters and their plight, I had to be sure that my artistic expression never lost its integrity, and then let the chips fall where they may.”
It's clear to Nabulsi that “The Teacher” will not be as easy for audiences to process as “The Present” proved to be. The latter followed a father named Yusef (Saleh Bakri) and his daughter Yasmine (Miriam Kanj) as they made their way through checkpoints in the West Bank in order to bring home a gift for her mother, leading to a final conflict with border patrol agents that ends with a surprisingly optimistic result. “The Teacher” features Bakri in the title role playing something much closer to an “anti-hero,” in Nabulsi’s words, and resolves in a far more complicated fashion.
“There’s a lot to absorb compared to the simple story of ‘The Present.’ There are a couple layers of injustice in ‘The Teacher’ and with these various characters and journeys on both sides of the conflict, there’s a lot to digest — especially if you’re not familiar with the reality on the ground,” says Nabulsi.
“But even as people may have wildly different interpretations of the film, I think a lot of people are coming from a place of goodwill and good intentions. Most who will watch a film like this just want to understand, because what’s happening in Palestine can’t be ignored anymore. And with what’s happening in Gaza now, though the timing of the film is coincidental, people are more focused on these issues than perhaps ever before,” she continues.
Now that the film is completed and continuing its acclaimed run on the festival circuit, Nabulsi is able to sit back and begin to chart her own journey. “The Teacher” was an experience of personal growth too, one in which she developed not only as an artist, but as a person.
“If you looked at the runtimes of (my) two films, you’d say (‘The Teacher’) should be six times harder, but it was honestly hundreds of times more difficult. Perhaps I have myself to blame — I put so much pressure on myself, wore so many hats from beginning to end, and spent three years living and breathing this film, all day each day. And the sacrifices that come with that are heavy,” says Nabulsi.
“Sometimes it’s not easy to enjoy the journey. But there are moments — truly beautiful moments. I think I’ve become more able to recognize those triumphs and appreciate them, and then, when they’re over, get down the mountain and get ready to start again,” she continues. “And as difficult as this can all get, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that nothing great can come without hardship.”