Farah Nabulsi shares the inspiration behind her BAFTA-winning – and Oscar-nominated – short film, The Promise
The British-Palestinian filmmaker tells Tempus how her most-acclaimed work yet came to be
American writer Dale Carnegie said: “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.” This rings true to me. We are all creatures of emotion and, if we are ever going to truly understand what people are going through, faraway from our lives on different shores, we have to be able to empathise with each other.
I believe being able to put yourself into the shoes of another person is one of the most important things we need to do as human beings. Art is possibly the most powerful means of human communication the world has ever known and, as an art form, film specifically can transcend borders. It has the power to tear down stereotypes and overcome misconceptions. It speaks to the heart rather than the mind – and if you want to access people’s minds you have to open their hearts.
The Present, my fourth short film, sheds light on how Palestinians are deprived of a basic right to freedom of movement. On his wedding anniversary, Yusef and his young daughter, Yasmine, set out in the West Bank to buy his wife a gift. They face soldiers, segregated roadsandcheckpointsjusttogoshopping,a situation which has been going on for decades.
I wrote this film long before the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has come at an interesting time. The world premiere was in January 2020 at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and the world started to go in a domino effect of shutdowns not long after. Thanks to Covid-19, everybody has been forced to reflect on the really basic right of freedom of movement, and all the simple things we took for granted. I think everybody has been brought a little bit closer during this pandemic.
Of course, no one can compare a decades- long military occupation [the West Bank has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East War] to people around the world going into lockdown for their own safety. But you can take a moment to reflect on that connection to restricted movement and all the civil liberties we take for granted.
I am British born, raised and educated and I live in London, but my heritage is Palestinian. The story spoke very much to my own identity as a Palestinian and as a human being. This is not something in the past, it is very much a reality of the present. Thus, the name, The Present, with its double meaning.
I was previously an investment banker and ran corporate businesses before moving into the film industry in 2015. I loved my previous career, but a life-changing trip to Palestine drew me to film. It was the first time I had visited as an adult. You think you know what’s happening but, I realised quickly, really you don’t. I saw the reality of what was happening on the ground — checkpoints, refugee camps, separate road systems, the war. It hit me like a tonne of bricks. Many people I met had heartbreaking stories. I was literally sitting with families on the ruins of their demolished homes.
I came back to my life of privilege and I just kept thinking, these are the human stories I want to tell. I have always loved film, so I wrote and executive produced three short films, which highlight the stories of refugees and prisoners of war. However, I have a very visual and vivid imagination, so I decided to jump in at the deep end to direct The Present. I didn’t study at film school so it was sink or swim.
I’m thrilled and grateful to have received a BAFTA [win] and Oscar nomination. It’s a beautiful thing when you work really hard on something and it resonates so far, and receives such high appreciation and acknowledgment.
I have already written my first feature film, which is currently in development, and so I am currently full on. My sister said the nicest thing to me: “Anyone who knew you as a teenager knows you are exactly where you’re supposed to be right now”. I know she was right.
The Present won Best British Short Film at the EE BAFTA Film Awards 2021. It is nominated for Best Live-Action Short Film at the Academy Awards (26 April).
As told to Judy Cogan