The Present: Oscar-Worthy Victimhood
It is said that history is written by the victors. That is apparently not always true. When ‘narrative’ stands in for history, history can be revised and written by the vanquished. And, accordingly, we have the movie, The Present, a Palestinian narrative in cinematic form. Having already won several prizes, it is a candidate in the April 26, 2021 Oscar Award Ceremony for the category of Best Live Action Short Film.
Movies can pack a punch. There are visuals, musical accompaniments, displays of emotion by means of body language, facial expressions and voice that, when skilfully applied, sweep up viewers in powerful ways. The Present is definitely skilled in all these elements. And I admit that had it told a story taking place between the borders of Guatemala and El Salvador, for example, I would have been swept away and might have been ready to march against the villainous country, whichever one that might have been. The only difference is — were it made about Guatemala and El Salvador, I would know it was fictional, as would everyone else. Given that so many distortions and lies have been told about Israel and the Palestinian Authority, most audiences will accept The Present as a true representation of life under the so-called “Israeli occupation”.
In fact, during her interview with France 24 English, director, co-writer and executive producer Farah Nabulsi repeatedly claims to be telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Her interview begins at 3:00 in the video and here are some quotes about her ‘truths’:
[4:00] I wanted to tell a human story about a very cruel reality that, unfortunately, is humiliating… and is reflective of a much bigger population that have to deal with this situation you see in the film.
[4:45] … even though it is a fiction it is based on a reality. So it needs to feel real….So it has to feel like it is real because it is, essentially.
So just how true is her depiction of reality in the region the world has come to know as the West Bank?
Opening Scene in The Present
The very first scene confused me somewhat. Yusef (played by Saleh Bakri) wakes up alone, alongside the cement separation barrier, after having slept on a sheet of cardboard; still dark outside, he joins scores of other Palestinians in what looks like Checkpoint 300 near Bethlehem. Palestinians regularly pass through this checkpoint very early in the morning in order to be able to get to work in Israel. So far so good.
However, the next scene is a morning scene and Yusef wakes up in bed, with no indication of how long has passed between the first scene and this one. His wife comments that he got home late the night before and one could think that perhaps he passed through the checkpoint on his way home late at night rather than on his way to work before sunrise. But then his having slept outside would not make sense — to Israelis, that is. On the other hand, those unfamiliar with what happens here would likely think the first scene was him going home from work in Israel. Why is this important? Because it starts the entire movie with misrepresentation and/or confusion.
Given the disconnect between the first scene and the second, it seems as if the checkpoint segment was there just to set the atmosphere, to make use of a disturbing image many foreigners may have encountered in anti-Israeli propaganda. This may be a form of subliminal messaging, the embedding of an image that does not really make sense except for the purpose of causing a deliberate emotional reaction as Dr. Sandra Alfonsi, Senior Academic Fellow at Truth in Textbooks, explained to me.
I immediately wondered whether or not this was the actual checkpoint and if so, how did a Palestinian team get permission to film it. After all, as Ziv Maor, Incumbent Chairman of Israel Media Watch, told me, the Israeli producers of the anti-Israeli film, Foxtrot, were not given permission to use a checkpoint in their movie. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the Palestinian team producing The Present were allowed to do so. In fact, in a Wikipedia page dedicated to the film, Nabulsi herself explains that they did use the real checkpoint, Checkpoint 300:
The scene was produced on location with guerrilla filmmaking; Nabulsi described it as “probably the most rewarding scene” in the film to make:
The only fiction in that scene is our protagonist, Yusef… All the other hundreds of Palestinians you see there are actual Palestinians going to work at the crack of dawn… I have a whole philosophical conversation we could have about who should we be asking permissions from to film such a monstrosity … I just decided we were going to take that risk.
It may be that Checkpoint 300 is the only true thing in the entire movie. And I wonder why, for Nebulsi, that was “the most rewarding scene”.
Setting out for a neighbouring village
After a calm and happy morning scene in the home of Yusef, his wife, and their delightful little girl, father and daughter set out to buy an anniversary gift for mother — a new refrigerator. They come to an Israeli checkpoint. In the interview with Nabulsi above, she says:
[9:40] There are over 100 Israeli checkpoints around the West Bank and this is just the story about one of them.
This is a common accusation against Israel, that the Israeli ‘occupation’ checkpoints seriously hinder the movement of people within the Palestinian Authority. However, even Machsom Watch, an organization that reports, among other things, on the mistreatment of Palestinians at checkpoints writes that:
There are some 60 permanent checkpoints scattered throughout the occupied territories, of which only nineteen control entry to Israel.
That means that, aside from their reported 19 border crossings between Israel and the PA, they count only 41 permanent checkpoints in the ‘West Bank’. Yet, a few lines down, they write:
Almost every time a Palestinian steps out of his home he will have to go through a checkpoint.
This does not make sense if there are only 41 permanent checkpoints throughout the entire PA but this sentence is more likely to be remembered and quoted and people are left with the impression that there are over 100 checkpoints. Even the notably anti-Israeli NGO B’Tselem claims that the ‘occupation’ restricts freedom of movement but when examining their list of contemporary checkpoints we find only 11 permanently staffed and 25 intermittently staffed checkpoints and even in the former, Palestinians generally move through on foot or in cars without being checked or stopped. Therefore, B’Tselem’s own website provides sufficient evidence that contradicts the out-dated claim that Israel inhibits Palestinian freedom of movement.
Oded Revivi, Mayor of the Judea & Samaria town of Efrat, says that, given international pressure, the number of checkpoints has been dramatically reduced, especially over the past ten years. According to him:
One can drive from the northernmost to the southernmost parts of the region without encountering a single checkpoint.
In addition, Ahmed (not his real name), who travels frequently in the PA says of the checkpoints that:
Because they are generally not consistently manned, the inconvenience is minimal.
Therefore, when Nabulsi claims to be telling the truth of the daily experiences of Palestinians in the PA through a story of one checkpoint, she is lying. She would have been closer to the truth had she told the story of passing through this checkpoint at the entrance to Jericho:
Humiliation at the hands of IDF Soldiers
In The Present, the soldiers at the checkpoint, it seems, could not do enough to thoroughly humiliate Yusef.They make him put all his belongings into a box, even taking off his belt. When he tries to talk to Avi, a soldier who knows him from other times he has passed by here, the first soldier cocks his rifle at him and his daughter. For no apparent reason, they put Yusef into a cage about 3m by 3m in size, his daughter having to sit on the ground beside the cage. Finally they let him pass.
There is nothing that feels authentic here. First of all, since Yusef works in Israel it is likely he speaks Hebrew and would not converse with the soldiers in English, and such polished English at that. Perhaps it would not be politically correct to have the Palestinian speak the language of the ‘occupier’.
Secondly, the soldiers were shown engaging in gratuitous debasement, something against which the Israeli army worked at eliminating by having older reservists serving together with younger soldiers who are still essentially teenagers. The older reservists are more mature, show more patience and serve to ground their younger peers who may be nervous and scared. I also wondered about the cage into which Yusef was put for no apparent reason. Not having personal experience with checkpoints, I turned to a number of people to see what they could tell me.
Ahmed told me that in his experience it is nonsense to claim that those passing through the checkpoints are humiliated. He says
the soldiers are polite, say hello, have a good day, thank-you.
When I asked him about cages next to the checkpoints and showed him the screenshot above, he responded very sharply that this is an out-and-out lie. In fact, everyone I asked about the cages — a former high-level politician, Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi, Incumbent Chairman of Israel Media Watch Ziv Maor, and Daliat-el-Carmel City Counselor Samer Birani, all were adament that such cages do not exist.
Birani watched The Present. As an officer in the IDF who has served many times in the reserves as squad commander at checkpoints, he says that this depiction of IDF behaviour is fictitious, “not realistic at all”. He agreed with me that it is not natural for the Arabs passing through the checkpoints to speak English. In fact, many do not speak Hebrew either and for that reason there is at least one Arabic-speaking soldier on duty at all times.
Birani says the soldiers should have been wearing their helmets at all times, but perhaps most important, it is against IDF regulations to cock a weapon without first saying, in Arabic, something meant to stop a potential assault. Yusef did nothing implying intent to hurt the soldier but the sound of the rifle hammer, and seeing it pointed at a father and his sweet daughter, certainly has a strong emotional charge to it. Who cares if it is not realistic! If British-Palestinian director Farah Nablusi says it is true, it must be true.
The Final Scene
There is much more that could be discussed but for the sake of brevity, let me just relate to the final scene: the refrigerator does not fit through the pedestrian gate and Yusef asks if he can roll it past the checkpoint on the road alongside. The vindictive soldiers refuse to allow this. As Yusef finally expresses his anger openly, little Yasmin unceremoniously pushes the fridge on its wheeled cart on the road herself and is then joined quietly by her father. You almost want to jump up and down in glee at this show of feminine power. However, given social media videos of IDF soldiers, who, when not threatened by an imminent attack, give drinks of water to old men and young children, play soccer with kids in the streets, share their sandwiches with kids, it seems more likely to me that at least one of the soldiers would have said to Yusef, “let me help you push it up this hill”. But that would not make good anti-Israeli cinema, would it!
The Present: Art-Propaganda
In her interview video above, Farah Nablusi claims:
[7:35] I am not interested in making films that are just for entertainment. I want to make films that raise a global social conscience.
Clearly, then, she is using art for the purposes of promoting propaganda. Art-propaganda of ancient peoples, such as the Asyrians, seems to have been for the purpose of demonstrating how they view themselves and how they want others to view them. This may be true of most peoples. Whereas art-propaganda can be used to exalt the strengths and merits of strong nations or their leaders, the Palestinians, or those working on their behalf, choose to exalt self-proclaimed and eternal victimhood as most meritous, most virtuous and most worthy of attention. And this is brought to bear against the Jewish state.
Constantly insisting that she is only telling the truth, she makes the comment that:
[8:07] Palestinians [are] actually reaching out to me, thanking me, using language like ‘we’ve been seen’ or ‘this is my life, thank-you for giving it voice’ …
However, given how many lies she manages to pack into a 24-minute film, I have no reason to believe that this is a true statement. Palestinians know how freely they can now travel from place to place within the PA. And many feel that their main problem is not Israel, but their own corrupt leadership. That does not mean that they do not yearn for their own state, but they accuse their own government for abusing them and preventing them from living lives of dignity.
Nablusi also wants to use Jewish leftists to push her agenda:
[9:10] I’ve had some lovely emails from certain Israelis, by that I mean Jewish Israelis, who, for example, work against home demolitions, you know, Human Rights Watch and those kind of things and they sent me wonderful emails. As for those who may, I don’t know, feel something negative towards my film, ahk, you know, it’s not actually been a huge backlash because I think at the end of the day, again, it’s a true story. It’s the reality. It may be ugly but you can’t deny it. It is what it is.
The Present may be winning awards but the Palestinians she says she cares about will get no benefit from such films. If she finds guerilla filmmaking most rewarding, may I suggest she try filming Palestinians at demonstrations against their own government. Or perhaps she can interview family members of journalists detained without trial and tortured in Palestinian jails because they dared to try to tell the truth about corruption in the PA? I am sure that there are many film-worthy topics about life in the PA that would actually be true and would do more to promote Palestinian welfare than this piece.
Feature Image Credit: Screenshot from video interview with Farah Nabulsi.
A shorter version of this article appeared in United with Israel on 21 April 2021.