“The Present” lays bare stark Palestinian reality

A girl stands behind a metal grill

Maryam Kanj, the young actress who plays co-lead in Nabulsi’s Oscar-nominated short film The Present.

Palestinian-British filmmaker Farah Nabulsi has had a pretty extraordinary couple of weeks.

Last month, her short film, The Present – her directorial debut – was first shortlisted for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award, before, days later, it was nominated for an Academy Award, whose Oscars will be handed out later in April.

Then came the announcement that Netflix was streaming the film.

Finally, on 10 April, the 24-minute short won the BAFTA to add to the numerous awards and accolades since its release last year.

What does it all mean to Nabulsi?

“For me, the priority was for the film to be seen. That is where I really get my enjoyment. So this all means even more exposure, which has already been great – and for a short film, in many ways unprecedented to our story. On that level I’m extremely, extremely fulfilled,” she told The Electronic Intifada by video call.

Nabulsi joins a list of film directors whose work is ineluctably tied to Palestinian identity. Nabulsi’s simple story shows in heartbreaking detail the brutal and humiliating physical control that Israel exercises over millions of Palestinians daily, and the physical, emotional and mental toil that come from the relentlessness of it.

Curiously, however, while her films are entrenched in Palestinian realities, Nabulsi says her cultural influences have less to do with Palestinian and Arabic culture.

Growing up in London and attending a “very British school,” Nabulsi says she didn’t have much exposure to Arab art or music. While she loves Edward Said’s writing and the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, she says she read their work “through the lens of someone who doesn’t read Arabic very well, so it had to be through translation.”

Before she turned to filmmaking, she enjoyed watching films by Annemarie Jacir and Hany Abu-Assad, but admits with a laugh that William Shakespeare and other Western artists have been important and, in many ways, more formative in her cultural exposure.

“The way I’m going about my work is slightly different,” Nabulsi said. “Whether I like it or not, I’ve got one foot in the West, I always have. So when I write and create my stories and direct, I think I have some influence from my upbringing and my Western influences as well, probably more than my Palestinian influences if I am honest. I don’t want to pretend otherwise.”

The times, are they a-changin’?

With a short film showing the stark, brutal realities of Israeli apartheid on everyday Palestinian life garnering international attention – and with a new US administration under Joe Biden and the promise of long-overdue Palestinian elections slated for the summer – does Nabulsi sense reason for optimism?

“I don’t really see much of a difference between Biden and Trump,” says Nabulsi. “They are heads of the same snake except one wears a mask and one doesn’t.”

A woman

Farah Nabulsi

She does believe, however, that the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency revealed clear, political alignments that those sitting on the fence can no longer deny, including some liberal Zionists.

“It became very clear when you think about Trump, [Benjamin] Netanyahu in Israel, [Viktor] Orban in Hungary, [Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil, [Nerandra] Modi in India, you suddenly go: ‘Oh, fascists!’ and you can see very clearly who the buddies are and what they’re doing.”

As a result, Nabulsi argues, “that intersectionality between other rights movements and anti-race movements has come even more into the light, and that brotherhood and sisterhood has been helpful. So I am quite excited about the times we’re in but not about Biden.”

On this summer’s planned Palestinian elections, Nabulsi admits she “loves the idea” of Marwan Barghouti running for the presidency from his Israeli prison cell.

“Yes, do it!” she said. “It does have that slight [Nelson] Mandela feel to it but I am under no illusion that that might not completely shut down or just fizzle out.”

She says that if the current leadership genuinely have Palestinian interests at heart, “they need to come into the 21st century and just get with the game.” She adds that she cannot understand why they did not put the ball squarely in Israel’s court long ago.

“Why haven’t they come out collectively and said: ‘You know what? That’s it: One state. Take care of us, take back the occupation, take it all back. Oslo? You killed it, it died and here are all the reasons why: the settlements, this, that and the other: done. So that’s all void.”

The Palestinian Authority, too, is void. Palestinian leaders now must demand from Israelis to “live with you. Do it with the biggest heart open and genuinely say: ‘That’s what we want!’ and present Israel with a choice.”

“That way either they have to decide, ‘Oh no! No, no, no! Here’s your state!’ or they have to deal with unequivocal apartheid.”

Two states, she said, “was a nice idea when it was viable but now it clearly isn’t. But [Israel’s] ideological birthmark is settler-colonialism so, unless they abandon that, then they don’t want two states. This was never their intention.”

Green shoots

Despite the political landscapes driving present realities, Nabulsi sees genuine signs of progress gaining momentum – which will, grassroots upwards, ultimately begin influencing those same political landscapes.

She cites a few recent examples, including the report “This is apartheid” by Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, the International Criminal Court’s recent decision to investigate Israeli war crimes and the transition over recent years of former liberal Zionists like US journalist Peter Beinart.

“I’m one of those people who believes that it really is about all the different drops in the ocean that come together. It’s no one movement or one individual or one report – yes, there are tipping points and there are key individuals, but in the end, it’s an amalgamation of all these things.”

Without that optimism, she says, filmmaking would be pointless.

William Parry is a freelance journalist and photographer based in the UK. He is the author of Against the Wall: the art of resistance in Palestine and co-director of the short documentary, Breaking the generations: Palestinian prisoners and medical rights.