Farah Nabulsi's journey toward making "The Teacher" – the Red Sea International Film Festival 2023's Jury Prize winning film – was a heart-wrenching experience that reveals the considerable toll the occupation of Palestine continues to take.
Film doesn't choose its moment; the moment chooses its film. For this moment, as the unbearable assault on Gaza passes its second month, that film is undoubtedly The Teacher, the feature debut of Academy Award-nominated British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi.
On December 7, 2023, Nabulsi took the stage twice at the third annual Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, first to accept Best Actor on behalf of the film’s star, Saleh Bakri, and second to accept the Jury Award for the film itself.
As she stood before a star-studded audience, holding the statuette for the latter in her hand, she looked down upon it in weighted silence to reflect not only on the journey that her film has taken but on the horrors in Palestine still taking place. She struggled to speak before finding the right words from one of her many heroes.
“This is a film set in Palestine and, under very difficult circumstances, filmed in Palestine. To not address the current devastation in Gaza would be shameful for me,” Nabulsi said. “In the words of philosopher Bertrand Russell, how much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty?”
Nabulsi, of course, could have never known what was coming when she set off on the arduous path to bring her astonishing West Bank-set film to life, but the many injustices that preceded it over the last 75 years were what inspired the film to begin with. The journey to the stage in Jeddah began three years ago when her powerful short film, The Present, also starring Bakri, picked up award after award on the global festival circuit, on its way to a BAFTA win and an Oscar nomination.
It started with something that happened in Gaza in 2011 that she couldn’t get out of her head. That year, Israel agreed to exchange 1,027 prisoners for an IOF soldier named Gilad Shalit, who had been held since 2006. “I thought to myself, what an insane imbalance in the value of human life. But I also remembered thinking, on a human level, that, to the parents and loved ones of that soldier, his life was worth millions. It’s an interesting dynamic to me as a mother myself, and I started thinking about the people on both sides of that equation, and I found it all so interesting,” Nabulsi tells Savoir Flair in an exclusive interview.
Few short films, if any, make the splash that The Present did in 2020, which not only garnered Nabulsi global recognition far outside the usual cinematic sphere but also provided her with a host of lucrative career opportunities in Hollywood. With that level of attention and momentum, she could have taken an easier path and turned into a celebrity overnight. Instead, for her next project, she chose to do a feature-length film about Palestine. But not without some hesitation.
It began with imagining a cast of characters – a tortured teacher struggling to keep his community together in the face of unbearable tragedy, an international aid worker unsure of how to help, and parents of an Israeli soldier who are guided only by love. Making this film felt impossible. So, she tucked the first draft in her desk and began to entertain other opportunities more seriously.
Then, when stuck in traffic in California as she drove from one festival screening of The Present to another, an epiphany struck.
“I realized right there, stuck there in that car for three hours, that this is what I had to do. When I get done with this, I’m going home, I’m finishing this screenplay, and I’m going to make this film. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to do it. I have no idea where I’m going to get the money, but this is the story that I have to tell,” says Nabulsi.
Nabulsi, in her previous life, was a banker, a career that all but ended the moment that she visited Palestine and saw the reality on the ground. Her dream was never to become a filmmaker; she wasn’t driven by a need for personal accolades or self-enrichment. Instead, she saw it as the best way to spread the word about injustice, to bring awareness to the humanity of those suffering from it, and to hopefully change the world for the better in some small way.
“If it weren’t Palestine, there would be something else that I would want to champion. We all only have 24 hours in a day, so there’s a limited number of things we can focus on, but we all need to have something that is beyond ourselves. What’s sad is that, even for those who are not consumed by personal struggles, so many people have nothing that they believe in,” says Nabulsi.
“I never want to judge another person’s situation, but if I am personally staring at a clear injustice, if I witness suffering, I know the choice that I have to make,” she continues.
Even though she chose to once again spotlight Palestine with her first feature film (and in no way regrets doing so), she’s aware of the personal cost it exacted from her. Even now, months after its completion, she’s still feeling the after-effects of the production, which she describes as around 100 times more difficult than the making of The Present. It took a heavy physical, emotional, and spiritual toll.
“You have to sacrifice so much. As a mother, spending three months on the ground in Palestine, away from my children and my husband, was hugely difficult. I ended up finishing this process having felt like I gave birth because it was so painful and exhausting,” says Nabulsi.
“But I’m also keenly aware, as I think again about the real-life suffering I was surrounded with, that even being able to do so is a privilege. And the awareness of that comes with personal responsibility. It means that I can’t just think as a filmmaker – I have to address the subject matter. I have to raise my voice for Palestine,” Nabulsi says.
It’s with that in mind that when she took the stage to accept the Best Actor award on behalf of Bakri at the RSIFF 2023, she couldn’t just mention his skill as a performer or the honor she has in working with him. She was compelled, once again, to use that moment to speak for something greater.
“His honesty is what makes his work great. And that is why I know that if he was before you, he would not hesitate, not for a second, to say, ‘Stop the genocide in Gaza. Stop the killing of our brothers and sisters and children in Gaza,” Nabulsi concluded on stage.