Three years after her short film The Present rocketed Farah Nabulsi to international recognition with an Oscar nomination, the British-Palestinian filmmaker is marking her debut feature with The Teacher.
The film is a highlight of the ongoing Reel Palestine and is scheduled for a regional theatrical release on February 8. It tackles lots of sharply poignant themes, from parental grief and guilt to finding love after loss.
However, it is the imbalance between the value ascribed to Palestinian and Israeli lives that is the film’s searing focus.
The Teacher touches upon a disparity that has deepened as the war between Israel and Gaza enters its third month, while touching upon the calamities and injustices that Palestinians are subjected to, even during times of relative, nominal peace.
The Teacher tells the story of a Palestinian schoolteacher named Basem (Saleh Bakri), who forms a profound connection with one of his students, Adam (Muhammad Abed El Rahman).
The two bond while in the throes of their individual tragedies, and their relationship is the pivoting point of a film replete with turbulent events that collide in all kinds of unexpected ways.
For one thing, a distinguished US attorney and his wife are seeking the return of their son, an IDF soldier captured by a Palestinian resistance group. As the group hopes to facilitate a prisoner exchange to free a thousand imprisoned Palestinians, the Israeli authorities ramp up their search for the soldier, ransacking Basem and Adam’s neighbourhood and pitting them in the eye of a political storm.
The prisoner exchange is one of the film’s most important elements. The plot point is loosely based on a real event, which Nabulsi came across during one of her frequent travels to Palestine. In the tumult of home demolitions, checkpoints and home raids, it was the case of a 2006 prisoner exchange that underscored how Israeli authorities perceived and valued Palestinian lives.
“I came across a story about an Israeli occupation soldier who was abducted in 2006 by Palestinian fighters and he was released over five years later for over a thousand Palestinian political prisoners, of which hundreds were women and children,” Nabulsi says. “I remember thinking at the time, what a huge imbalance in value for human life.”
This imbalance, Nabulsi says, has intensified with the Israel-Gaza War. More than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed since October 7 when Hamas launched a surprise attack that killed close to 1,200 people.
“So again, this crazy imbalance and value for whose life is worth what, and I think, in many ways, it is the root of the problem,” Nabulsi says. “If you can’t see the other as human or that somehow you perceive them as less than you, then we have a big problem.”
This disparity is potently depicted in what is one of the film’s most memorable scenes, as the US attorney Simon Cohen (Stanley Townsend), thinking that Basem may know the whereabouts of his son, confronts the teacher in the school’s hallway. The moment is rife with tensions that contrast parental duty and suffering. It manages to effectively drive home the inequality that Nabulsi hopes to point out with The Teacher, while ensuring she herself doesn’t stoop to the inhumane value system she sets out to criticise.
In the scene, the filmmaker sets out to depict the agony that Cohen is undergoing as a concerned parent, even if using it as a foil to reflect upon the turmoil that Basem, and a thousand Palestinian families like his, have to grapple with as a result of Israeli actions.
“When I did discover this story, I also remember thinking at the time and contemplating on the individual level, to [what] that particular soldier’s loved ones, his parents [were going through]. If you ask any parent what your child is worth to you, they can’t put it in numbers,” Nabulsi says. “I found that that that universal dynamic very interesting. This idea that they are both fathers in their pain and loss.”
Besides the disparity of human life, the scene also stresses another important contrast. Cohen has a recourse to justice and has “a powerful, strong system” to help him recover his son.
“In the case of Basem, and indeed Adam, with his loss as well, there is no recourse to justice,” Nabulsi says. “And it culminates what you see in the court scene, this idea that if the only people that Palestinians have to turn to for justice are one and the same as those complicit in the crime itself, the system is rigged. It is perverted. While Simon and Basem, yes, they are parallels, they are also completely opposite and divergent. That corridor scene, even aesthetically, is a reflection to that.”
The Teacher springboards arresting performances from its cast, which also includes Imogen Poots, Mahmoud Bakri and Andrea Irvine. However, the actors behind the two main protagonists are the powerhouses to the film. In fact, acclaimed Palestinian actor Bakri came on board to the project while it was still in its early, conceptual phase, and Nabulsi says she wrote the character with the actor inextricably in her mind.
Bakri’s performance in The Teacher is one of his finest in an already illustrious career. His portrayal of Basem won Bakri the Best Actor Award at the Red Sea International Film Festival in December, where The Teacher marked its regional premiere and also received the Jury Award.
“I worked with Saleh on The Present,” Nabulsi says. “He’s a brilliant actor. I had this idea for The Teacher. I had kind of written the story, I had never verbalised. I was on a trip to Palestine in 2019 and I sat down with him and told him the story. He was smiling the whole time and nodding his head, and at the end of it I said to him ‘you’re going to be the teacher.’
“When I started to write the further sort of drafts of the actual screenplay, yes, I had it very much in mind. Sometimes that feels scary, because you’re always told don’t put an actor in mind for a role because so many things can go wrong. But it did lend itself [well], I am familiar with Saleh and I'm familiar with his talent so that was a no-brainer for me.”
As certain as she was of Bakri’s involvement, Nabulsi had no idea who would depict Adam, and a lot of the film’s emotive momentum would depend on the actor who end up taking on the role. Abed El Rahman came as a recommendation from Bakri’s brother, who is also named Adam.
“He was the only person at the time outside of the development team, that I allowed to read an earlier draft of The Teacher,” Nabulsi says. “Partly, it was because I wanted him to suggest any actors he knew who are young, who might play the role of Adam. He sent me a film that Muhammad Abdel Rahman had made himself because he hadn’t been in any films. It was a short film that he directed, wrote and starred himself.”
Abed El Rahman’s talent was evident in the film, Nabulsi says, and “in a very strange way” the actor reminded the filmmaker of her own sons, who had in some way inspired the character to begin with. “I knew he was the one,” Nabulsi says.
As much as the performances drive the film, so does its setting. With its sweeping grassy knolls and limestone structures, there is no mistaking that the film was shot in Palestine. Nabulsi says she was keen on filming entirely in the West Bank, even if that brought on certain challenges.
“It was filmed mostly in the Nablus area,” she says. “Making an independent film anywhere in the world is really just difficult. If you are filming in a militarily occupied place, with literally settler colonialism unfolding around you in real time, you’re going to run into certain things that are going to put a spanner into your filmmaking process. Like checkpoints and roadblocks.
“But for me, the hardest part was the emotional and mental toll. You're really trying to get to the finish line, you're trying to remain positive, upbeat and leading a team. But you are filming something that is set in this very harsh reality while this reality is unfolding around you.”
Trees were set on fire, houses were bombarded and towards the end of the shoot, in August 2022, Israel began bombing Gaza.
“People are on edge some of my team from abroad were even thinking of leaving,” Nabulsi says. “It’s painful and you’re trying to do that reality justice in your work. You want to keep everyone safe. You’re trying to stay positive in an environment that is painful to witness and is so close to you.
“This is not a period drama. It's not some tragedy that took place a long time ago that we're depicting now. It's unfolding, in reality today, worse than ever.”
The Teacher opens in cinemas across the UAE on Feb 8