Movies & TV

Checkpoint film ‘The Present’ to represent Palestine at the Oscars

Saleh Bakri and Mariam Kanj in a still from Farah Nabulsi’s short film ‘The Present,’ representing Palestine at the 93rd Academy Awards. (Courtesy of Philistine Films)

BEIRUT: Military occupation inflicts various absurdities on those occupied. When it goes on for decades, as in Palestine, the stupidity comes to shape your daily life. Naturally, the idiocy crops up among the themes of occupation cinema as well.

Among those themes is immobility. Geographical Palestine is a multiply divided and subdivided territory. ’48 Palestine was hived-off from the Occupied Territories, which themselves were subdivided into different shades of administration (“the PA,” Israeli military rule, Israeli civilian rule, the pandemic of illegal Zionist settlements, etc).

Separating these fragments of territory from one another are structures of domination that have become visual tropes in Palestinian film – Israeli watchtowers, the apartheid wall, checkpoints.

Building the separation barrier justified massive expropriation of Palestinian land, of course, and the wall frequently separates households from their livelihoods – whether agricultural lands or sources of day labour.

Since much Palestinian traffic is pedestrian, checkpoints are modelled on the fence-and-turnstile mechanisms devised for the industrial slaughter of domesticates – cattle, sheep, pigs. The Israeli border-management regime creates chokepoints of negotiation and confrontation, impunity and humiliation, with heavily armed soldiers placed in the role of bureaucrats.

Anyone living in this region, particularly those territories adjacent Palestine, which since 1948 have hosted communities of its refugees, the checkpoint is familiar as dirt. For those living elsewhere in the world, where (before COVID-19, at least) mobility was the norm, the Israeli chokepoint is more unsettling.

So it is that Palestine will participate in the 93rd Academy Awards with Farah Nabulsi’s short film “The Present,” which centres on an Israeli checkpoint (the opening sequence was shot at Bethlehem’s Checkpoint 300).

Yusuf (Saleh Bakri) is a young father with chronic back pain who passes through the checkpoint daily to work and to shop for his family – Yasmine (Mariam Kanj), his adoring pre-teen daughter, and Nour (Mariam Basha), a concerned wife with a worn out refrigerator.

On the day of the couple’s anniversary, Yusuf and Yasmine navigate the checkpoint to do some shopping. Yusuf is arbitrarily told to sit in an Israeli detention cage for a few hours and, when he’s finally allowed to proceed, he finds Yasmine’s pissed herself while waiting for him.

Yusuf picks out a fridge for Nour’s anniversary present, but finds the pharmacy shut, so he can’t get hold of the painkillers he needs for his back. Returning in the delivery truck with the fridge, he finds the Israelis have randomly shut the crossing to civilian traffic, forcing him to heave the fridge across the line on a trolley.

By this point, it’s obvious Nabulsi’s story is building to a climactic confrontation between Yusuf and the checkpoint gunmen. It’s Yasmine who provides the resolution, illustrating the sentiment that, as elsewhere in this region, the dysfunctional way of doing things in Palestine reflects a childishness that’s unique to adults.

Though Nabulsi has writing and production credits for a couple of other shorts, “The Present” is her directorial debut. Here she shares writing credits with poet, filmmaker and Beirut habitué Hind Shoufani, who also cut the film. Production was overseen by Philistine Films (aka Ossama Bawardi and Annemarie Jacir).

The 93rd Academy Awards will be announced Monday, April 26, 3-6 a.m. Eastern European Time





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