“That was a moment of true euphoria,” says Farah Nabulsi of the time she learned about her Oscar nomination. In her Instagram post that documents this moment, the Palestinian-British director is seen standing on a table with a grin. It is similar to the one she wears now as she recalls the event from the other side of a Zoom screen, yet comfortably seated this time in her sunny home office.
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Nabulsi was with her husband and three boys when she learned that her directorial debut short film, The Present, was Oscar-nominated. The Academy Award-nod takes Nabulsi to new heights, making her the first female Palestinian director to compete in the awards, in the best short live-action film category.
The Present has already earned a Bafta for best short film, with Nabulsi saying in her virtual acceptance speech, “For anyone who has seen this film, you would know why I dedicate this award to the people of Palestine.” The film follows a Palestinian father as he sets out from the West Bank with his daughter, to buy a wedding anniversary gift for his wife. As the 24-minute film progresses, audiences witness the struggle of Palestinians to complete a simple task like shopping, as they encounter checkpoints, soldiers, and the reality of life under occupation.
The film was also produced by Nabulsi, alongside Ossama Bawardi of Philistine Films, and she co-wrote it with Palestinian filmmaker Hind Shoufani. Yet Nabulsi started out far from the world of film, working as a stockbroker in London before launching her own production company. “My background has nothing to do with film. I didn’t study film and I didn’t work in the industry. I was very much happy in the business and corporate world,” she explains, the bookshelf behind her stocked with scholarly files, trophies, and family photos. What made her change the trajectory of her life? “I went home,” she says, simply.
Nabulsi had visited Palestine a number of times as a child, but it took her first trip back as an adult in 2013, and the visits that followed, to grasp the reality of her ancestral home. “Everything I thought I knew and understood about the daily struggles of Palestinians was absolutely nothing compared to seeing it on the ground with my own two eyes,” she explains. “Whether it was the wall plowing through Palestinians homes, the humiliating checkpoints, the refugee camps that I visited, or the ruins of demolished homes that I sat on, those trips changed me.”
The reality of Palestinian lives followed Nabulsi back home, where she realized that she wanted to tell these stories. She chose to champion her love for film and wrote and produced her first few films. The next logical step seemed to be directing, but, she says, “I had a bit of imposter syndrome. How could I direct? I didn’t go to film school.” What she did have, though, was drive and a vision. “I could see the entire world of The Present in my mind’s eye, and so I decided if I was going to do my directorial debut, this had to be it. I want to tell important stories that matter to me, human stories to be shared with the world, I want to give voice to the silenced,” she explains.
It was Nabulsi’s experiences at checkpoints that inspired her story, as well as the struggles of a young Palestinian who lives in a checkpoint-heavy area. “This young man’s life and the lives of all the Palestinians who live in that area are far harsher than what I depict in The Present,” Nabulsi shares. “I remember thinking how absolutely absurd it was that they have to go through exhausting and humiliating checkpoints, sometimes multiple times a day, just to get around. What about the basic human right of freedom of movement?” She continues, “The beauty of The Present is that while we have zoomed in on a particular family, one man, and his young daughter, it’s reflective of a larger pain of a whole nation, so I think every Palestinian, no matter who or where, can relate in that sense.”
Nabulsi shot The Present in Palestine over six days, despite the challenging context. One of the rawest scenes features the infamous Checkpoint 300 connecting Bethlehem and Jerusalem. “Checkpoint 300 was very tough,” Nabulsi says about the most stressful moment on set. “We went in with a small crew and no lighting as we wanted to keep a low profile. It was so stressful to shoot as poor Saleh, our protagonist, had to place himself among the thousands of Palestinians who were going to work that day through this monstrous checkpoint. We were also always conscious that the military was nearby.” Despite the risks, the scene turned out to be the most gratifying to shoot. “I felt strongly about shooting at Checkpoint 300 and to attempt to replicate it would have just felt inauthentic to me.”
While The Present stems from a real Palestinian struggle, it ends with a glimpse of hope. But, says Nabulsi, that is artistic license. “I am sad to say that while this film is based on reality, this is a fiction film, and unfortunately the most fictitious part is that ending,” Nabulsi says. Hoping to one day make it a reality, she emphasizes the importance of educating the young on the current Palestinian situation. “It’s important that our children are informed and engaged to know about the reality of what is happening in Palestine. This isn’t even history. Yes, there is the past they need to know, but also the present.”
Nabulsi feels a duty towards her fellow Palestinians. “To me, the term responsibility can be broken down to the ability to respond,” she says. “I believe every Palestinian who lives what could be deemed a life of privilege, has an ability to respond and thus has a responsibility towards their fellow humans in Palestine. I also proffer that any human that lives a life of privilege has a responsibility to every other human being that doesn’t.” She wants the world to believe in the power of incrementalism. “Put in a little effort, donate a monthly few dollars. We can all help the people of Palestine and beyond,” she advises.
Nabulsi hints at a full-length film currently in development. “Audiences can expect a character-driven drama-thriller set in the same landscape as The Present,” she says. But before she can get back into the director’s seat, she has a red carpet to walk. Unlike other virtual award ceremonies this year, Nabulsi will be attending the 93rd Academy Awards on April 25 in person at Union Station Los Angeles. A win would be so much bigger than herself, she says. “It would mean so much beyond me. It would be the first Palestinian film to win an Oscar and by a female Arab, too. It would be a win for Arab cinema, women, Palestinians, and our narrative.” And if she doesn’t win? “People are seeing my art’s meaning… So, I’ve already won in my heart.” And with that very sentence, with or without the grace of a golden trophy, the Oscar goes to women, to Arabs, and to the people of Palestine.