Palestinian-British writer, director and producer Farah Nabulsi is a trailblazer forging her own path in the film industry, using her platform to spread awareness on the plight of the Palestinian people. With her Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning short film, The Present, Nabulsi has proven that she is a brilliant filmmaker, who is opening the eyes of the world to the brutality of the Israeli occupation. eniGma’s Mohamed Hesham got the chance to chat with Nabulsi over Zoom, to learn more about her unusual journey into filmmaking and her hope for justice and peace in her homeland.
Born and raised in London to a Palestinian mother and a Palestinian-Egyptian father, Nabulsi studied Finance and Investment at Cass Business School in London. “That’s what I thought I wanted to do, and I was in fact an investment banker for a while. I was an institutional equity stockbroker for the first few years of my career, and I enjoyed it. I loved the knowledge, the travel and the money,” she says with a laugh. “Afterwards, I ran a business with a partner for about 10 years. That was more aligned with my life as a mother at that point, as I sort of started popping out babies,” she adds humorously.
Nabulsi had visited Palestine several times as a child, but she hadn’t gone there for over 25 years when she decided to pay her home country another visit, as an adult this time. Little did she know, her life would take a completely different turn with that trip. “It sounds a bit cheesy, but it really was a life-changing trip. I was overwhelmed with the reality on the ground there. Despite everything I already knew about the dismal situation from books, films and the news, it didn’t compare to witnessing and experiencing it firsthand, as well as talking with people on the ground in actual fact,” she recalls. “After that visit, I started writing therapeutically about things I had seen and felt and that I began to imagine; I was exercising empathy in a sense. And then, fast forward a couple of years, I felt this really strong desire to express myself creatively and tell these human stories that I had come across, so I adapted them into initial writings,” she adds, referring to the drafts that formed the basis for her first three short films, which she wrote and produced. “I had finally found a way to express myself creatively, and to do something that could help tell the stories of these silenced people – not people without a voice, but people who have essentially been silenced,” she stresses.
“I wanted to tell this human story, showing one aspect of what is a very cruel and absurd reality on the ground in Palestine,” says Nabulsi about the premise behind her directorial debut, The Present, which she co-wrote with Palestinian poet Hind Shoufani. The groundbreaking short film delivers a poignant message, so seamlessly, by showing the heartbreaking story of a Palestinian man on a simple errand, forced to endure cruel humiliation inflicted upon him by Israeli soldiers. While the story is brief and simple, it is a powerful example of what Palestinians in the West Bank experience on a day-to-day basis. Without the use of hyperbole or grandiose declarations, Nabulsi conveys a very clear demonstration of the daily humiliation and struggle of a small family trying to survive another day in the brutal reality that is their life.
The film walks you in the shoes of the man, accompanied by his little daughter, as he passes the Israeli checkpoints while on their short trip to buy a birthday present for his wife. Without showing any bombing, killing or torture, The Present just focuses on the emotional abuse imposed on the little girl forced to witness her father’s degradation. The 25-minute run ends with the little girl’s effective determination to get her mother’s present through the checkpoint despite the soldiers’ unreasonable hostility. Her ingenuity is a metaphor for the resilience of the new generation of Palestinians determined to not give up on their struggle for justice and dignity.
It took a film that is so effortless, yet extremely touching, to shed light on a cause that has too often been ignored and overlooked. “I absolutely love it when people say they thought about my film for days after watching it. I want the film, not to haunt them, but to leave them thinking. I want them to think about the human dynamics that the father and daughter in the film have to deal with. I want them to ask themselves if they would accept such treatment and such a life for themselves. I would also love them to seek to understand that reality more. While it’s a fictional film, it’s based on a reality that exists today, in the present. Hence, the duality of the name, ‘The Present’ as ‘a gift’ and ‘the present time’ as in ‘now,’” she explains.
Over the past year, the film has garnered widespread acclaim from critics and audiences alike. After its premiere at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Film, it went on to nab big wins at the Cleveland International Film Festival, the Brooklyn Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films.
Most recently, the film earned the coveted BAFTA Award for Best Short Film, as well as a stellar nomination at the Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short Film. “When I first found out about the Oscar nomination, I had a moment of euphoria, and then winning the BAFTA was just fantastic; I was over the moon with that. But while it’s wonderful to have appreciation and recognition for your work, ultimately for me, it’s always been about people watching the film. So, winning the Audience Award at Clermont-Ferrand was the true triumph for me. With that award, I realised how the film has resonated as a piece of art with people. That’s the power of shorts; they are gems that often deliver impactful storytelling. Sometimes it can be the simplest thing that moves an individual – something that causes emotional engagement with a subject. Next thing you know, a conversation is being had,” Nabulsi says, as she analyses The Present’s effect on its growing audience, especially after its debut on Netflix.
Referencing the latest tragic events in Palestine over the past month, Nabulsi expresses her admiration for the unwavering courage and resilience of the Palestinian youth and her hope that more people will use their own platforms to spread awareness and educate those who are misinformed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “My hope is that as a world community, as well as a Palestinian community, internally and externally, we would unite, be vocal and stand together in active solidarity, to demand the Palestinians’ basic human rights – to demand that their freedom and equality be upheld and adhered to and that an end is put to Israel’s apartheid system and occupation. What I really hope for is courage; courage to be bold in those demands and to stop cowering in the face of pressures or censorship – right is right and wrong is wrong at the end of the day. I hope the momentum continues to build and the world no longer turns a blind eye to the plight of the Palestinian people,” she exclaims passionately.
Judging by the outcry of people around the world to the latest violence inflicted upon the Palestinians, the future is looking brighter for an increased universal awareness of the justice of the Palestinian cause. The future is also looking brighter for this trailblazing storyteller whose award-winning film successfully shone the light on an appalling reality. “I think the next major bridge I want to cross is directing my very own feature film. I’ve written it already, and that’s what I’m currently working on. It’s a character-driven drama-thriller about love, loss and self-absolution, and I would love for it to resonate just as much as The Present has, if not more,” Nabulsi concludes.