INTERVIEW: British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi on her latest film The Teacher, her journey in cinema

Soha Hesham , Tuesday 19 Dec 2023

British-Palestinian filmmaker and human rights activist Farah Nabulsi talks about her recent film Al-Ustaz (The Teacher) - screening at the ongoing El-Gouna Film Festival - and her journey in the world of cinema,

Nabulsi


Nabulsi’s Al-Ustaz (The Teacher) is among the most recent films screened in the Window on Palestine section — a new program at the sixth El-Gouna Film Festival (GFF, 14-21 December), which after an initial delay in response to the war on Gaza decided to proceed without celebrations or red carpet events.

Part of the logic of holding GFF despite overwhelming grief over the atrocities committed against Palestinians is that cinema is a more effective way to garner solidarity than straight news: when you are exposed to a personal story through a work of art there is more scope for empathy and understanding. Nabulsi was raised and educated in London, visiting Palestine only as an adult, which gives her a unique perspective on the plight of her people. 

In The Teacher, for which Saleh Bakri — who also played the lead in Nabulsi’s Oscar-nominated short, The Present — won the Best Actor Award at the Red Sea International Festival (30 November-9 December) the previous week, Bakri plays Bassem, an English schoolteacher in the town of Burin, who after losing his son to the resistance grows close to his teenage friends, Adam and Yacoub, who are his students and neighbours.

The events of the film unfold against the backdrop of the Gilaad Shalit story, to which Bassem has privileged access through his involvement with the resistance. Yacoub’s fearless, angry character results in fights with Jewish settlers following a stint in an Israeli military prison, and he is eventually killed. Bassem and the British volunteer who counselled Yacoub at the school, Lisa (Imogen Poots), start a relationship; and together they attempt to help Yacoub’s family. The film opens powerfully but its second half is somewhat uneven, considering the number of storylines and climaxes it attempts to balance. It nonetheless remains a strong evocation of the situation on the ground in Palestine. 

“We were shooting in Nablus,” Nabulsi told me, “in summer of 2022, which synchronised with rising tensions when Israel started bombing Gaza. And we had so many military outfits, we had weapons for the shooting process, so you can imagine our tension in terms of the possibility of people in Nablus might misperceive our vehicles, weapons and the military outfits since we even have some foreign actors and crew, and immediately they become very nervous. And immediately it’s, ‘Do we stop production?’ I’m used to it. When you film in Palestine you know there is always going to be tensions, but we have to be smart about it. When we realise that maybe we’re in danger then we stop, but when we’re not and we just feel uncomfortable or the tension is rising, that’s not a reason to stop production. If you come to Palestine you know there are things that are going to happen around you.

“I visited Palestine many times. That’s part of the reason I became a filmmaker. I went to Palestine as an adult, not too long ago, and I saw with my own eyes what was happening on the ground, everything I thought I knew and understood before that, was nothing compared to what I saw with my own eyes. When I wrote the short film The Present, that was based on my own experience as a witness to what happens at checkpoints. Of course when you shoot a film, you spend a lot of time there doing location scouting, casting and everything else related to the preparation of the film. I spent over three months preparing for filming The Teacher. 

“I would never be able to say that I have the absolute direct experience of being a Palestinian like someone who spent a lifetime there, or even a year, but I definitely spent a lot of time there on the ground getting to feel and understand the reality. That is part of my research and part of ensuring that I understand things correctly so that I can represent this reality in fiction, and of course my fiction work is very heavily rooted in that reality, which I wanted to do justice. We’re not talking about period drama. I’m not making stories that happened decades ago or hundreds of years ago. This is a reality of military occupation, of settler colonisation, of apartheid that is still happening today, so with that comes a responsibility of trying to do justice to that reality, the reality of so many people suffering right now.” 

Could she have shot her film outside Palestine? “Making an independent film is so difficult anyway,” she says. “Anywhere in the world it’s difficult, and yes I did contemplate what we called the ‘path of least resistance’ but the truth is I notice any film that is supposed to be set in Palestine which is not shot in Palestine, I notice it the minute I watch it. There is a strangulation of the topography, of the scenery. I don’t want to call it a suffocation but at the very least the filmmaker is forced to narrow the lens and this is something I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to hold back. While I didn’t say that I set out to do a political film, there is a socio-political side to the landscape that is so difficult to replicate outside of Palestine. 

“I didn’t want to give up on all the beautiful elements of what is Palestine: the landscapes, the accents, but also the ugly side whether it’s the apartheid wall, the settlements, the checkpoints. So, these things and elements I cannot replicate unless I have a massive budget and even then, it wouldn’t look authentic and real. I also felt that if I can shoot in Palestine — which in my case I can — then there is a sort of duty and responsibility towards the fact that if I can bring the business, quite literally the dollars, to be spent into the West Bank, then I would prefer to do that. And I also think there are very talented Palestinians who want to be involved in the film industry, who want to make films and who are very creative and are sadly given very limited opportunities, so if what I can do is to bring my project to Palestine then I must and yes that does come with extra headaches and heartache as well as risk. When I was scouting for locations, I did look outside Palestine, but when I went to Palestine, I knew in my heart that this is exactly where I want to film.

“I didn’t study cinema or filmmaking. I come from a very different background. I studied investments, investment banking and finance. That is how I began with the production of short films, and people kept asking me why aren’t you directing, and I seemed to have something of an imposter syndrome but also there was this idea that I didn’t go to film school and I didn’t know the technical side of things. People encouraged me and said, ‘You don’t need to study filmmaking, you need to have a vision.’ You have to be able to lead and to be honest. Stanley Kubrick actually said, ‘The best education in filmmaking is to make one.’ 

“There are two sides to why I became a filmmaker. One side is the personal side: that I wanted to express myself creatively, and I had written these pieces personally and therapeutically during my travels and I realised that I had something to say and I had always loved art with all its mediums, especially cinema. The other side was to bring some kind of change or to be part of that change for all the things I’d seen and witnessed and wanted to tell the stories of, and I really believe that art speaks to the heart and for me it’s one of the reasons I have been asking myself why this injustice in Palestine has been allowed to take place for so long on such scale.”

But, of all the arts, why cinema?

“I was mostly interested in cinema because I felt that cinema potentially has the most impact and travels the furthest to inform people and to garner empathy, and so I was drawn to fiction versus documentary and I thought, I’m going to try this. And to be honest when I started to visit festivals around the world with my first short films, people really wanted to know and people were drawn to the films and were moved by the films and I realised that I was onto something as a filmmaker, and that films could also be a form of resistance. All these experiences that I lived and these conversations that I had in Palestine, whether about home demolitions or imprisoned children, that has been going on for decades, I grew very familiar with these things and I spent time with people who experienced these things first hand.

“That is how I got a lot of details and I also read very well on the reality whether it’s UN documents and reports or books and documentaries or news and analysis. As to the other side of the story in the film, when I came across the story of the Israeli occupation soldier Gilad Shalit, who in 2006 was abducted by Palestinian fighters and not released until 2011 in return for over a thousand Palestinian political prisoners, most of them women and children, I was blown away by this imbalance in the value of human life, so I started to read extensively about that and other incidents prior to it and since. I read a book about the negotiation process as well. I discussed it with people who have insights about this.”

This is effectively expressed when Bassem says of the freedom fighters, “They will keep him alive as long as they can because they know that his life is worth hundreds of my children.” Nabulsi agrees this is the crux of the film:

“That was my realisation. In my opinion, if there is a line for that film, it is that line, and there is something beautiful about sitting with an audience in the cinema like I did in Toronto, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and here in El-Gouna, when I actually hear the audience either gasp or breathe at that moment. When I know that this line hit everybody at that moment, that’s a powerful experience for me as a filmmaker. And it is just absolutely bizarre that right now, with what’s happening in Gaza and in the West Bank, that line resonates even more than when I wrote it three years ago. Actually what’s even more bizarre is that, even though they’re exchanging hostages and Palestinian prisoners, the vast majority are not just political prisoners, they are hostages, they’ve been held with administrative detention which means no charge, no trial.

“When they’re exchanging them now, this sort of ratio seems to be one to three or four, but if we talk about the death toll and we think about a 1200 Israelis being killed on 7 October and now there are over 20 thousand Palestinians killed in Gaza and hundreds in the West Bank, actually we’re witnessing this imbalance in value of human life again. So the line resonates even more, and it’s devastating and it’s racist and sick and I think this line is hitting people even more now.”

How did Nabulsi manage language-wise? Is her Arabic good enough?

“I initially write everything in English. I know I speak good enough Arabic to know what I want to express in Arabic, and I worked directly with Saleh Bakri which is a rarity for an actor to be able to do with the director, but I worked with him and we did the translation together, meaning he would translate and I would sit with him as well and go over the lines and say I prefer this or no, I prefer that, or there’s a better word and we actually had long conversations doing the translation to really try to get it to a place which was good – not only for the sake of good Arabic – but for the sake of the meaning of what I wrote in English.

“I want to add something pertinent to the current situation in Gaza. It’s a powerful thing right now to see how many people in the world are mobilising for Palestine and really not just to have a ceasefire in Gaza, but to end the occupation, to end colonisation, to see a free Palestine once and for all, and people are always asking me what can we do, and of course we keep doing what we can. We pressure our governments, we sign those petitions, we go on those protests, but really what’s in the hands of every single individual is the idea of boycotts because the concept of boycotts everybody can participate in. It’s very important for everybody to understand how boycotts work. It’s not about you as an individual just deciding to boycott 20 or 30 companies, and then impacting your own life in a negative way while the companies themselves feel nothing. The idea is to have big, mass, collective boycotts that specifically target companies. This is the way boycotts work, so I encourage everybody to join the official BDS movement pages and follow the process and the companies they direct us at.”

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