Lunch with The Present
Can you tell us a bit about your background as a filmmaker?
Actually, I don’t have a background in filmmaking! After a life-changing trip to the Occupied Palestinian Territories around five years ago, I started to write privately and therapeutically on what I had seen, felt and begun to imagine as I naturally found myself exercising empathy by placing myself into the shoes of those who are suffering gross injustice. Around two years later, I “chose” to become a filmmaker at the age of 38, by adapting those initial written pieces and producing them as short films. I had never worked in the industry, had absolutely no past experience in making films or any formal training or education in film, but I always loved film and that was enough. Put that together with my vivid visual and verbal imagination and my enjoyment in telling stories – and it made sense. The great Stanley Kubrick said: “The best education in film is to make one,” and I couldn’t agree more. That brings us to The Present. This is the fourth short film I have written, but the first one that I have also directed, so the learning curve was huge. The process was daunting and thrilling at the same time!
Where is the film shot? How difficult was the shoot? What were the main hurdles?
The film was shot 100% in Occupied Palestine, in the Bethlehem area. Shooting in Palestine is never going to be easy. The cast and crew have different IDs and can come and go with different freedoms, which can mean unnecessary delays and restrictions. It is in a landscape under military occupation, so during the shoot we could be prevented from filming at any moment, but thankfully we were not. When we did recce we found great locations, but they were usually in Area C, which is completely under Israeli military control and obtaining permits to film there would have been next to impossible, but shooting without them would be too risky, so we had to give those up and settle for locations that were mostly not ideal at all, in more central areas with lots of traffic and noise that needed to be controlled although we had wanted quieter and less busy areas, etc. One of the hardest things we did, and took a big risk on, was filming at the infamous real Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem (scene 2 of the film), where hundreds of Palestinians pass through every morning like cattle. The only fiction in that scene is our protagonist, Yusef (Saleh Bakri). Filming that morning was intense, as we had taken no permissions from anyone and were surrounded by real people who were being humiliated in actual fact by a military who were just around the corner. The more philosophical question though is – who has the right to give or refuse permission to film such a monstrosity and why is such a monstrosity there in the first place? It was intense and tough, and we risked attracting military attention at any moment, but it felt extremely rewarding once we were done.
Did you work with Israeli actors as well? How did the collaboration come about?
Everyone who worked on the shoot of the film was Palestinian, except our DOP, Benoît Chamaillard, who is French. I worked with a number of Palestinian Israelis, whom the Israeli government like to call “Arab-Israelis”. So, for example, Saleh Bakri, my lead actor, is a Palestinian who resides in Haifa and holds an Israeli passport. Or Nael Kanj, the production designer, from Nazareth and a few others. I also had a team of Palestinians from the West Bank.
What made you choose to cast Saleh Bakri?
Saleh is a brilliant actor. I had seen him in a number of other films and when I wrote the initial story, The Present, he was the actor that kept coming into my mind who I felt could and should play the role of Yusef. It’s funny, because I did not know him personally, but the world conspired. When I started to co-write the actual script, a bit later with Hind Shoufani, and we discussed who I envisaged for the role, she in fact did happen to know him. So, the introduction was made. Saleh is a sensitive soul with an incredible talent who immediately understood the character (could even relate, of course, as a Palestinian himself), and appreciated the simplicity of the story. I had no doubt he could embody Yusef and I needed someone who could really dig deep into what it means to be a man like Yusef, living his frustrations and humiliations every day.
What do you hope the audience will take home from the film?
Of course, I want the film to do what all good films should do – give the audience an emotional experience. When we feel emotion, we feel alive. But I also want them to contemplate the film, even after they go home. To feel and wonder what such a life means for people like Yusef. This is a fiction film about an absurd situation which is sadly a current reality in Palestine, so I want the film to do what Alejandro Inarritu meant when he said “Cinema must try to raise the global social conscience.”
Would you say that the short film format has given you any particular freedom?
Initially, yes, in the sense that you can make more, faster and at a lower cost than the long form, and as mentioned, I had no background in film at all, so the stakes were not as high if I aimed for feature length prematurely. But then almost all filmmakers start off in the short format I guess for the same reasons. It has also afforded me the freedom and flexibility to try and find my identity as a filmmaker and as a Palestinian – if you agree, as I do, with what an art critic said in an article I read recently, that “you cannot make art without a sense of identity, yet it is identity you seek in making art”. But recently, I have naturally started to write and think in the long form feature length, even potential series format, which I didn’t initially plan or think I would do. I will have to go where my creativity takes me.