Following one of the most distressing moments in the film The Present (2019), Yasmine (Maryam Kanj), a young elementary-school-aged girl traveling with her father from their home in the Palestinian West Bank through an Israeli checkpoint, turns to him and says, “It’s okay, Dad, there was nothing you could do.”
That one sorrowful line could alone sum up the heart of this outstanding short film—a story about a parent trying his best to make it through an average day while seemingly simple tasks are repeatedly interrupted with increasing degrees of inhumanity as the film, and the father-daughter duo’s journey, progress. The source of these interruptions is the Israeli occupation, and in this 24-minute short film director Farah Nabulsi subtly and sensitively provides a glimpse into one family’s world, capturing the danger and degradation that Palestinians face daily.
We first meet Yusef, Yasmine’s father (deftly played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, previously in Elia Suleiman’s acclaimed The Time That Remains) in the early hours of the morning while he is lying on a piece of cardboard waiting to cross through an Israeli checkpoint, with the graffiti-covered separation wall in the backdrop. Filming featured Bethlehem’s infamous Checkpoint 300. Footage of the excessively overcrowded checkpoint—in which we see men scale the elevated metal bars that surround the checkpoint’s narrow, confining tunnel in an effort to expedite their journeys—pointedly encapsulates a grueling experience that is routine for tens of thousands of Palestinians on a daily basis. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), as of 2018, reports over 700 road obstacles that control Palestinian movement within the West Bank. 140 of these are staffed checkpoints. Many of these are internal checkpoints, which do not monitor Palestinian entry into Israel, as is commonly thought about the checkpoints, but in fact divide one Palestinian area from another. (“My house is just there,” Yusef repeats to soldiers, emphasizing the cruel proximity of his home to this particular installation of the monstrous checkpoint system. In contrast to Yusef’s struggles, we see settlers breeze through a checkpoint by car, smiling and making small talk with a soldier as they go.)
Yusef mentions a shopping trip to Beitunia. Neither the names of particular checkpoints, however, nor a precise location within the West Bank for the family’s home, are emphasized in the film. These choices speak to the simple yet powerful style of the film, in which minor details about the characters, plot, and setting are etched with great care, but we are constantly made aware that Yusef could be any man, that his family could be any Palestinian family, in any part of the West Bank. This is a context in which injustice is widespread and doggedly persistent, Nabulsi appears to be telling us throughout. Thanks to a beautifully minimalistic and thoughtful script from Nabulsi and Hind Shoufani, sharp cinematography by Benoit Chamaillard, and wonderful, perceptive performances from the cast, the message is well-poised to be received both by those deeply familiar with the Palestinian struggle, and those seeking an entry point into learning about the current situation.
After the gray, dimly-lit scene in the checkpoint, in which Yusef’s surroundings are comprised of a dizzying combination of desperation and cigarette smoke blown in his face by fellow commuters, the film jumps to Yusef’s home where we first meet his wife, Noor (Mariam Kamel Basha). Noor and Yusef’s bedroom is painted a warm evergreen, and gentle sunlight beams in through windows partially covered with delicate lace curtains. Yusef is suddenly transformed—a charismatic smile overtakes his pained expression as Yasmine joyfully jumps onto her parents’ bed, and a few moments later when Noor and Yusef discuss the celebration of their wedding anniversary. His pained expression returns at countless moments throughout the film, including when Noor asks about the state of Yusef’s back. He suffers chronic back pain, exacerbated by his sleepless hours lying outside near the checkpoint.
From here, a pattern develops, as we see Yusef vacillate between facial expressions showing joy, and fury. The joy presents during commonplace occurrences, such as when bonding with his daughter and indulging her requests for extra treats at the grocery store. But the fury emerges during what should be transitional, insignificant moments at an Israeli checkpoint, both when venturing out for the day on a quest to buy an anniversary gift for Noor, and when returning through the same checkpoint with Yasmine that evening.
In observing all this oscillating emotion, I was reminded of Emile Habiby’s novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, a work of satirical fiction that captures the necessarily coexistent feelings of hope and despair that define the injustice of the Palestinian condition. Although The Present is speckled with delightful moments of humor and lightness, there is nothing satirical about this film—it is comprised of realism that also packs symbolic punches, which capture that same “pessoptimistic” struggle between hope and despair.
Early in the film, Noor shuts a faulty fridge door in her kitchen and tentatively steps away, relieved it seems to have closed, only for it to swing open minutes later. (We will learn that it is securing a replacement for this faulty fridge as a gift for Noor that serves as the catalyst for Yusef’s outing with Yasmine on this particular day.) In one of the more heavily symbolic moments, Yasmine meets two picturesque caged birds in a shop she visits with her father. The beauty of the birds and the delight they initially bring to the child’s face are contrasted with their confinement, which has an unsettling and metaphorical quality. The camera settles on Yasmine's face when it appears behind the bird cage, displaying a striking similarity to her father’s face when we view it through the bars of a checkpoint detention cell.
Soldiers threaten and detain you, and then they let you through. Disappointment, relief. Despair, hope. And so Yusef and Yasmine’s experience goes. And so life under occupation goes.
To say much more on these plot points would be to reveal too much of this sharp and well-paced film, but what can be revealed is the way in which the film artfully emphasizes how, under occupation, what are meant to be transitional moments become the main events of the day, what should be merely a transit point is in fact a place of great disempowerment and risk, and what should be a simple and pleasant outing to buy a gift for one’s spouse is actually a journey in which lives are under direct threat.
Young actress Maryam Kanj is wonderful as Yasmine, a character who has been carefully written to embody strength, resilience, and female courage, but in a quiet, straightforward, and surprising way. Yasmine eschews the too-often deployed and limited tropes of the child hero, or the silently suffering innocent.
So far The Present has won awards at festivals including the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, Brooklyn Film Festival, Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, and Cleveland International Film Festival. Nabulsi, a Palestinian-British filmmaker, has showcased injustice experienced by Palestinians in three other short films, Nightmare of Gaza, Today They Took My Son, and Oceans of Injustice. As in The Present, Today They Took My Son (for which Nabulsi was an executive producer and co-wrote the script) explores the injustice of Palestinian life under occupation through a relationship between a parent and a child. In that film, a mother despairs over what brutalities her son, taken away and detained by Israeli soldiers, will witness. (The narrative is interspersed with real photographs of children arrested, detained, and brutalized by Israeli soldiers.) The mother in the film is not there to witness her son’s removal, but learns from her daughter and from neighbors that her son cried out for his mother—“perhaps he thought I could stop this … Me? A citizen of the helpless.” She agonizes over how their inhumane treatment will render her son “old.” “They will age him,” she laments.
At a recent (virtual) filmmakers’ panel as part of the Other Israel Film Festival, for which Nabulsi spoke about the film, I asked her about the experience of filming in the occupied West Bank, and specifically the process of guerilla-style filming for the scene at Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem, which she describes as “probably the most rewarding scene” in the film to make. “The only fiction in that scene is our protagonist, Yusef,” she explained. “All the other hundreds of Palestinians you see there are actual Palestinians going to work at the crack of dawn” … going through their “daily grind.” Nabulsi filmed the scene with a small crew to minimize the chance of attracting attention from soldiers. “I have a whole philosophical conversation we could have about who should we be asking permissions from to film such a monstrosity … I just decided we were going to take that risk.”
In one of the film’s later key scenes, the focus shifts from Yusef and Yasmine to the Israeli soldiers, who we can hear fighting with each other over what a seemingly more senior soldier views as the insufficiently uncompromising, perhaps insufficiently inhumane, behavior of his junior. Nabulsi gives us a pointed moment to reflect on here, as we witness two soldiers serving on occupied land morally wrestle amongst themselves over what it means to live in a world in which “rules are rules” and “we have a system.” At what point does the reality of injustice that has become horrifically commonplace overtake adherence to a system that is designed to disorient, to disenfranchise, to delay, and to strip people of dignity?
In an essay that introduces Ghassan Kanafani's story collection Palestine’s Children (Kanafani's meditations on the plights of Palestinian children serve as the focal points of some of his most celebrated works), translator Karen E. Riley recounts an anecdote. A friend of Kanafani, asking in 1970 about whether Kanafani was optimistic about the current state of Palestinian affairs, shared a story about George Bernard Shaw’s remark that Shaw “felt very happy” on his ninetieth birthday, “considering the alternative.”
Kanafani laughed but then seriously replied, “Today isn’t my birthday, but if you ask me how I feel I would not hesitate to say I feel very happy, not because I consider the alternative, but because I know we are traveling on a path for which there is no alternative.”
We can imagine Yusef and Yasmine on this same sort of path, forced through the checkpoint as their only way home, and achieving seemingly minor, but in fact formidable, victories within a complex and repressive system.
When trying to transport the fridge he has purchased back through a checkpoint, Yusef is denied entry. “This is the only way” to get through by car, he says, and quickly strategizes over his next move. In many ways, The Present is about persevering on one’s path, but seizing openings and reprieves from injustice along that path, wherever one can find or create them. Farah Nabulsi has told an important story with stunning clarity, one which deserves to be seen widely.