Review: The Present (2020)
British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi’s short The Present recently took home the Oscar-Qualifying Jury Award for Best Live Action Film at Cleveland International Film Festival, where it had its North American premiere.
With a portfolio of socially conscious films such as Nightmare of Gaza and Today They Took My Son, The Present is an impressive addition as Nabulsi continues to explore Palestinian life through a father and his sweet family attempting to live peacefully, despite external conflict and tension beyond the walls of their home. Yusef and his daughter set out in the West Bank to buy an anniversary gift and general groceries but despite this simple desire their journey is less than straightforward.
The Present begins shrouded in literal darkness with protagonist Yusef waking up outside, sat on a sheet of cardboard. Next, it cuts to a never ending tunnel filled with men who are enclosed by concrete walls and metal bars. The crowded passageway is Checkpoint 300 (or the Gilo Checkpoint), an infamous main crossing point between Bethlehem and Jerusalem where conditions are fraught with chaos as workers are kept confined – often for hours at a time – as Israeli officials control the turnstiles. Rather than opting for a reconstructed version of this setting, filming took place at the actual checkpoint so the large queue of men crammed into the oversized cage between steel and stone mirrors a distressing reality for Palestinian people who have no choice but to tolerate such dreadful treatment if they want to make their way to work. Throughout the short Yusef complains of a bad back so we can assume this is either due to his sleeping arrangements (many people begin queuing at 3am so that they can get to work on time), or because he’s forced to stand up and queue for hours each morning - or, of course, a combination of the two.
In direct contrast to the lifelessness of the prison-like checkpoint, the next scene is in a bright bedroom on the morning of the couple’s anniversary. A genuine warmth resonates through the performances as Saleh Bakri (Salvo, Salt of This Sea, Wajib, The Band’s Visit) plays Yusef, a doting husband in a loving relationship, as he cuddles his little girl Yasmine and the family enjoy breakfast together.
Yusef and Yasmine set out to buy the eponymous present, a new refrigerator, as well as groceries. There is less of a queue than the one seen at the start of the film during rush hour as they go through the checkpoint again, but new issues arise when moving through the crossing each time, leading to more extended waits, detention, abuse and a gross misuse of power. Every transaction is full of vitriol and as Yusef is asked, "Why are you here?" by an official, the question feels like less of a routine interrogation and more of a critique of their very existence. Not only is an innocent man faced with baseless hostility and stripped of basic human rights as he attempts to move freely in Bethlehem, but his young daughter is forced to watch. Presumably this experience is her version of normal.
As she waits for her father to be freed, Yasmin sits patiently on the ground. Benoit Chamaillard (Director of Photography) cleverly frames the soldiers from a low angle, placing us physically in the child’s position as she watches with fear from behind her knees. Despite this, she displays an abundance of kindness and patience and assures her father: “It’s okay, Dad. There was nothing you could do to fix it.” It’s heartbreaking, but she provides hope when it’s most needed – for both her father and us as viewers.
Imagery of entrapment is everywhere in The Present: a caged bird in the electrical wholesalers, food wrapped in the fridge (which is tied with a bow), the circle of soldiers surrounding Yusef as they inspect his shopping, and it all reiterates the invasive nature of life for Palestinian people. As a result of this you understand how suffocated Yusef is by the constraints placed upon him. There is no doubt that it’s inhumane and despite telling the story of a quiet, peaceful family, Nabulsi's message is loud and clear: humans deserve better.
Verdict: The realisation that popping to the store or commuting to work is a privilege will quickly become apparent after watching The Present. In 24 minutes Farah Nabulsi delivers a hard hitting message about freedom of movement in an uncomplicated way.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡💡
Watch the trailer here: