Sabina Hashmy reviews The Present, a movie set in the occupied West Bank and directed by British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi, which has just won a Bafta award for best short film.
“What are you doing here?” asks the obnoxious Israeli soldier at the checkpoint. “I live here” replies Yusef, the Palestinian protagonist of the film.
The searing irony of this simple exchange permeates through every scene of the BAFTA award-winning short film, The Present, which is a must-watch film on the burden of a Palestinian family living under Israeli occupation.
This is British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi’s first venture as a producer and director, co-written with Palestinian-American poet and filmmaker Hind Shoufani and starring Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri as the lead.
It tells the story of father and husband, Yusef, who sets out with his daughter Yasmine to buy an anniversary gift for his wife in the heavily-militarised West Bank.
Of course, being set in occupied Palestine this simple and happy endeavour is overshadowed by the daily grind of life under Israeli occupation.
From the packed and distressing conditions at the checkpoints Yusef must pass through to go to work, to the humiliations he and his daughter suffer at the Palestinian only-barrier gates, we as an audience are drawn seamlessly into Nabulsi’s narrative which packs razor sharp impact into every scene.
We sense a growing sense of deep frustration as Yusef tries his best to make this a joyful day trip for his daughter despite the countless obstacles and trials. He’s a man trying hard to be a good husband and father under difficult and soul destroying circumstances.
But his patience eventually breaks into desperation that culminates in an anxiety-inducing climax which leaves the audience on the edge of their seats. In the heat of the tension, we too fear the consequences for Yusef and Yasmine. And it is here that Nabulsi’s skill as a film maker is truly impressive as she draws us into wonder “what if?”
At the heart of this film we feel the deep love and affection Yusef has for his daughter, Yasmine. From playing with her in bed to letting her cheekily add sweets into the trolley at the supermarket, this is a man whose life is clearly his family.
The brief scene with his wife where she asks him to sit and eat breakfast captures a similar loving relationship. These tender and poignant moments are ones we can all identify and empathise with, a far cry from the Hollywood and Bollywood stereotypes of one-dimensional, misogynistic, Arab terrorist characters.
The cinematography of the film is also one of its strengths. Many of the lived realities of life under occupation are alluded to without dialogue with Nabulsi cleverly using the brutal architecture of the checkpoints and Israeli-only roads to comment on an Apartheid-like system of control.
The juxtaposition of these banal cruelties against the wide-eyed innocence of Yasmine is heart wrenching, yet the ending presages the hope and resistance of a new generation of Palestinians.
Even moments such as Yasmine playing with a caged canary in a shop lead the audience to quietly pause and draw comparisons between the fate of the bird and that of Yousef’s family and countless other Palestinian families whose freedom is effectively curtailed by the Israeli military.
The acting too is superbly natural. Bakri, the lead actor, portrays the heavy weariness of a good man ground down by the effort to sustain a family life under military occupation; whilst Mariam Kanj who plays Yasmine transitions naturally from initial childish excitement at the trip to a quiet fearfulness and discomfort.
In a sense the film’s overarching narrative of Palestinian lives under occupation is summarised in the journey of Yasmine – one of hope, fear and ultimately resistance.
The Present is an absolute must watch film. In 24 minutes it achieves its aims of illustrating Palestinian family life under Israeli military occupation with all its cruelties. The fears and countless anxieties wrought by something as mundane as a shopping trip when under Israeli occupation are brilliantly presented.
Anyone who has watched The Present will wholeheartedly agree with Nabulsi when she said in her BAFTA award acceptance speech: “I dedicate this award to the people of Palestine for whom freedom and equality is long, long overdue…”
The Present is now available to stream on Netflix.