“The Present” is a simple yet profound story of resilience in the face of colonial oppression. Directed by British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi and starring Salih Bakri as Yusef and Maryam Kanj as Yasmine, the 24-minute film revolves around a Palestinian father and daughter going on a shopping trip in a town in the West Bank. To do so, they must go through an Israeli military checkpoint.
Yusef intends to buy a new household appliance meant to be an anniversary present for his wife, who briefly appears at the beginning of the film, tired and frustrated by the old broken one. Yet, what would be an everyday errand under normal circumstances, turns out to be a day-long journey, strained by surviving the challenges of the crowded Checkpoint 300 in the West Bank.
Yusef suffers severe back pain, which keeps him edgy and low-spirited throughout the trip. He now also has to endure demeaning search procedures and questioning by heavily armed Israeli soldiers. The guards, on a whim, decide to detain Yusef and humiliate him in front of his young daughter, who is left waiting outside his cage until he is released. After they are finally allowed into town, Yusef and Yasmine must go through the same checkpoint on their way back. This time with the present, a refrigerator, which is too big to fit through the narrow bars of the pathway designed for Palestinians.
Yusef has to endure demeaning search procedures and questioning by heavily armed Israeli soldiers.
In a moment of intense frustration and heightened anxiety, and after being unable to convince the guards to let him use the main road reserved for Israeli settlers to get to his home, Yusef finally loses his temper. The viewer is drawn into the verbal confrontation between Yusef and the guards while a cloud of dread sets in and an ominous outcome seems inevitable.
Until now, the escalation of events focuses on the father. But in the last few minutes, the director chooses to surprise the viewers by shifting to the daughter. Despite the tiring trip and the embarrassment she witnesses, Yasmine takes matters into her own hands and pushes the refrigerator on the main road by the roadblock, leaving her father and the guards speechless. As the small girl crosses the Israeli checkpoint with the bulky present – daring to do what her father was unable to, Yusef’s face shows admiration and relief.
A Compelling Look at Injustice
The short film only shows a day in the life of a dehumanized population by a ruthless military occupation. It excels, in a subtle way, in capturing a sliver of the emotional despair, physical pain, and psychological distress Palestinians are burdened with daily. It also depicts the need to control raw human emotions in the face of brutal injustice, even when there’s barely any energy to do so.
As Palestinians, Yusef and his family go through overwhelming challenges, in order to just survive, let alone live freely. Throughout the film, Yusef and Yasmine seem trained to be subdued; they know that behaving otherwise is not an option—until that emblematic final scene which reveals enduring resistance.
Yasmine turns around the power dynamics between the security guards and her father by taking the lead and affirming her will. This final daring act expresses the overwhelming burden weighing on the Palestinian identity and the struggle to survive despite endless persecution.
In an interview with E. Nina Rothe, Director Farah Nabulsi pointed out that the film helped her discover herself. “I make films as a way of seeking my identity – as a human being, as a Palestinian, and as an artist,” she said. The film – produced via Guerrilla filmmaking techniques – was recently awarded a 2021 British Academy of Film Award (BAFTA) for Best Short Film and was nominated for the 2021 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. It also won the Jury Award for Best Live Action Short at the Cleveland International Film Festival this year.
Nabulsi, while never having studied filmmaking, explained that her love for cinema was clear early on because she “always had a very vivid visual and verbal imagination.” This creative edge comes across in her ability to capture the rawness of the Palestinian experience through the heart-wrenching journey of Yusef and Yasmine.
Other films by Palestinian directors have showcased similar scenarios and messages. “200 Meters,” for example, is a longer movie that depicts comparable stories at the Israeli checkpoints throughout the occupied territories. The roadblocks are meant to frustrate, debase, break, and control the lives of Palestinians in every way possible. However, “The Present” offers a sharper and more condensed look into these ubiquitous obstacles that puncture at regular intervals the most mundane routines of life.
The dialogues in the film are very succinct but poignant articulations of simple, reasonable reactions to the imposed limitations of the police barriers. When Yusef exclaims: “My house is just [over] there; I just need to get to my house,” he is screaming his irritation and pleading for an ounce of compassion and humanity from his oppressors. His excruciating back pain is of course the physical manifestation of the interiorized load he must endure on a daily basis as he risks his life and freedom.
The film stands out in its ability to express the revolting interruptions in Palestinian lives including injustice, segregation, and the denial of basic human rights.
The film stands out in its ability to express the revolting interruptions in Palestinian lives including injustice, segregation, and the denial of basic human rights. This includes freedom of movement, which was “recently felt by all humans around the globe because of the Covid-19 situation,” as the director suggests in her interview with Rothe.
In a comparison of “The Present” with an Israeli film in the Ynet, writer Amir Bogen confirms that Nabulsi’s film is an authentic representation of what happens in these checkpoints when describing the father who “waits patiently for the document review, as he watches Israeli settler vehicles pass freely and without unnecessary delays at the checkpoint—a scene that is repeated in most Palestinian films, as well as in reality.”
Nabulsi emphasizes the humanitarian aspect of the film as being beyond activism and patriotism but rather showcasing the lack of the most elemental human rights afforded to the Palestinian people. She describes herself as an advocate of Palestinian rights, not as an activist, out of respect for the activists who risk their lives to bring about political and social change. “I’m not really a patriotic person, but freedom, equality, human and civil rights for all—those are things I feel very strongly about,” Nabulsi says.
This commitment to support social justice, dignity, and civil freedoms for all is amply evident in her compelling short film. “The Present” gives the world a humanistic look into the Palestinian struggle and is a searing indictment of Israeli apartheid in the occupied territories.