Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi wants world to see 'cruel and perverse' realities of occupation

Her directorial debut 'The Present' won an award at the Oscar-qualifying festival Cleveland International Film Festival in April

Director Farah Nabulsi on set of her film 'The Present', which was shot over six days in Palestine. Philistine Films / Native Liberty
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Palestinian-British filmmaker Farah Nabulsi is trying not to dream about the Oscars.

Her directorial debut short production, The Present, has had a great start. It won the audience award at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in February, where it had its world premiere. It then went on to win the best live-action short film award at the Cleveland International Film Festival last week. This is an Academy-qualifying festival, which means she is truly in the race for an Oscar.  

“It’s nuts,” she tells The National about how she feels of the past few months.

It's one thing to have the facts and the figures and the reports and the maps... but unless you speak to people's hearts, you can't access their minds

How seeing occupation in real life changed her

Nabulsi’s recent success is all the more notable given that she never studied film making or went to film school. Born and raised in London, she made trips to Palestine with her parents as a child, But the family stopped going after the First Intifada broke out in 1987.

In 2014, more than 25 years later, Nabulsi made her first trip to her homeland as an adult.

“It was life-changing for me completely,” Nabulsi says of the trip. “I assumed I understood what was happening from the books I was reading, the films I have seen, but there is really no substitute to going and seeing what is happening on the ground.”

Nabulsi was affected by witnessing the occupation in real life.

“Whether it’s the wall ploughing through villages, the refugee camps, the separate road system, the checkpoints, the settlements... It really hit me and that is when I started writing therapeutically.”

Back then, Nabulsi was not yet a filmmaker, but she wrote as a way to channel her experience into something creative.

Acclaimed Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri stars in 'The Present'. Philistine Films / Native Liberty
Acclaimed Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri stars in 'The Present'. Philistine Films / Native Liberty

“I was struggling with what I could do to make a difference,” she says. “I kind of concluded that what is really missing from the whole Palestine narrative is empathy, enough empathy. It’s one thing to have the facts and the figures and the reports and the maps ... but unless you speak to people’s hearts, you cannot access their minds.”

Those pieces of writing from her trip to Palestine became the seeds for Nabulsi’s first films. She turned them into short portrait films, which although she did not direct, she wrote and produced. 

The decision to turn them into experimental poetic pieces of short film was because she felt strongly about the medium being the most far-reaching form of art. “I wanted it to be able to cross borders and speak to the West, to understand and feel the Palestinians and the Palestinian situation.”

Challenges of filming in Palestine

Nabulsi's The Present tells the story of Yousef, played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, who decides to go with his daughter to buy a gift for his wife on their wedding anniversary. The task of shopping for the gift is almost impossible due to the challenges of life under occupation.

For Nabulsi, the film is simply about freedom of movement as a basic human right. 

“At its essence, the film is about human dignity and the importance of dignity and what it means for someone to continuously be dehumanised,” she says. “It’s a simple story that speaks volumes about the absurd situation that exists there [in Palestine].”

The film, co-written by Palestinian filmmaker and poet Hind Shoufani, was shot over six days in Palestine. They even filmed at the infamous Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem. The checkpoint is where thousands of Palestinian workers queue from as early as 3am to cross into Israel for work. 

For Nabulsi, that was the hardest part. 

“Making a film is exhausting and not easy, especially when it is live action,” she says, speaking of deadlines and shot lists. “Then you have that extra cloud of doing it in occupied Palestine.” 

Where will the film go next?

But as we talk about the subject of freedom of movement, the conversation brings us to the world’s reality today.

Of course, for reasons far from occupation, the coronavirus pandemic has left much of the globe facing restricted movement and fear of the future. 

As a filmmaker, Nabulsi has her own concerns, too. 

A scene from 'The Present' starring Saleh Bakri, left. Philistine Films / Native Liberty
A scene from 'The Present' starring Saleh Bakri, left. Philistine Films / Native Liberty

While The Present's second festival participation was a virtual one, she worries about what the postponement of festivals around the world will mean for films such as hers that were only about to start travelling for a year of festivals.

“The ultimate reward is for people to see the film,” she says. “I want as many people to watch the film and to contemplate the human dynamics required to cope with such cruel and perverse circumstances, even after they go home, and to feel and wonder what life means for people like Yousef our protagonist.” 

However, as Nabulsi waits to see what the fate of her short film will be, she is wasting no time creatively: the filmmaker is working on her next project, which will be her first feature-length endeavour.