The Present Director Farah Nabulsi “One of the toughest things we did was filming at the infamous real Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem”

Following our 5 Star Review of Farah Nabulsi’s THE PRESENT. We caught up with this talented director to find out more about this magical film.

Hi Farah, how are you doing?

Very well thank you. I’m in the UK and we’ve just gone into another lockdown, so no doubt cabin fever will start to kick in soon!

Congratulations on your first movie “The Present”. Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

Thank you. 

I’m Palestinian by origin, and although I don’t live in Palestine, I wrote the story based on my own experiences at these Israeli checkpoints during my visits there, witnessing other Palestinians at these checkpoints and discussions with those who have to deal with the indignities and frustrations of them every day, including one particular young man I have gotten to know well over the years. He quite literally has a checkpoint less than 100 meters from his home. He has to pass through it anytime he wants to go anywhere or do anything. Which is even more harsh than what I portray in the film. So, it’s a fiction film, but it is very much inspired by a present-day reality that exists on the ground there. 

Why did you choose that story as your debut film?

I’ve written and produced other shorts, but in terms of directing my first film, I think because it’s rooted in a cruel and absurd reality for so many people I know and love. I felt compelled to tell this story because I am most interested and drawn to telling stories with meaning that examine the human character and the human spirit, rather than just entertain. As a Palestinian it was a natural step for me to begin with a film I feel very connected to. A story I felt I had to tell that touches on my own dignity, and my own Palestinian identity as well as telling it for those who truly live this absurd, exhausting and humiliating reality every day. 

The actors are very wonderful and have great chemistry together. How did the casting process for this movie go?

When it comes to the stunning Maryam Kanj who plays Yasmine (the young daughter)she was introduced to me by her aunt, who happened to be a friend of mine. I was at my friend’s home (not in Palestine), and brought up that I needed to cast a talented 8-year-old girl, ideally IN Palestine who would also facially resemble something of her father in the film (actor Saleh Bakri). (Completely coincidentally Maryam’s actual real father, Nael Kanj was already being brought on board to be set production manager on the film – nuts right?!) Even though I auditioned a number of young child actresses after I met Maryam, my gut knew I was just going through the motions. I knew from the get go she was the one. 

When it comes to Saleh Bakri, who plays Yusef (the father), he’s actually one of the most well-known and talented film and theatre actors in Arab indie cinema. The fact that he wanted to play the role of Yusef in this short was so precious to me and I am truly grateful for the passion and performance he gave. I had seen him in a number of other films and when I wrote the story, he was the actor that kept coming into my mind who I felt could and should play the role. It’s funny, because I didn’t know him personally, but the world conspired. When I started to co-write the actual script a bit later with Hind Shoufani, she asked me who I envisaged in my mind for the role. I told her ‘Saleh Bakri’ and it turned out she knew him, so the introduction was made. The fact that he accepted the role and wanted to play Yusef was so precious to me. He immediately understood the character, could relate and appreciated the simplicity of the story

The movie was shot in Bethlehem (Palestine). What was the most challenging part of filming on location there?

One of the toughest things we did, and took a big risk on, because I felt strongly about filming there, was filming at the infamous real Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem (scene 2 of the film), where thousands of Palestinians pass through every morning like cattle. The only fiction in that scene is our protagonist, Yusef (Saleh Bakri). Filming that morning was intense. We were surrounded by real people who were being humiliated in actual fact by a military who were just around the corner. I think it was also really heavy on Saleh Bakri’s heart – on all our hearts – he was standing tightly among them, stressed and claustrophobic, but also feeling like he was somehow in their way and we were on edge in case we would be stopped. But it worked out and is one of the most rewarding scenes of the film from a personal perspective. 

What do you hope that people will take away with them after seeing this movie?

I want people to ponder the film, even after they have seen it. To wonder what such a life means for people like Yusef and Yasmine under military occupation and apartheid. When daily life and simple tasks are deliberately made so hard and stressful on an ongoing basis. 

This is a fiction film based on a true situation on the ground today in Palestine, so I want people to consider this cruel, absurd reality – and ask, would they accept it for themselves? 

Was “The Present” already screened in Palestine? If so, what was the reaction of the audience there? If not, will the movie be screened there?

Yes, not too long ago at Palestine Cinema Days. It’s a festival by Palestine FilmLab. From what I heard, the film was well received. 

The movie took home already multiple prestigious awards such as Audience Award for Best International Film at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and the Oscar-qualifying Jury Award for Best Live Action Film at Cleveland International Film Festival. How is it for you to know that critics and audiences love your movie?

These wonderful awards and reactions the film has had from both international audiences and juries tells me that the film is resonating. It tells me that people are appreciating the art and the meaning. What more could a filmmaker want?

When did you know that you wanted to become part of the film industry?

Sometime after what I call a life changing trip, I knew I wanted to tell these human stories I had come across and also express myself creatively. I’ve always loved film and forever the storyteller, even from a very young age, so that’s how it unfolded and I haven’t looked back since. I caught the bug!

This movie is your directional debut. Was being a director harder, easier or different than you expected it to be?

Harder, for sure harder! I knew it would be hard, but it took more than I expected. That said, it has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I experienced the whole plethora of emotions from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low literally giving birth to this film. When you feel all that, you feel alive – so the hardship born for a work of passion is worth it!

Do you already have other projects coming up?

I have written my first feature length fiction screenplay. It’s a character-driven, drama-thriller that every bone in my body wants and hopes to direct. So, I’m basically in development and working on trying to make that happen. I’m also half-way through another screenplay, but that will take time as I focus on getting the first one made.

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