Few filmmakers have to experience the very real thing they’re dramatising on camera actually happening around their set. But then few films are set and shot in the Occupied West Bank.
As Farah Nabulsi recalls, while making The Teacher around the city of Nablus, she witnessed the forced demotion of a Palestinian home by Israeli forces and settlers torching Palestinian olive trees, both of which take place in her film.
“On my way to set at five in the morning, by the side of the road was a Palestinian family, a couple with six young children, standing in front of the rubble of their freshly demolished house,” she says. “So yeah, this harsh reality is unfolding around you.”
Premiering in Toronto on Sept. 9, the film follows a school teacher (Palestinian acting royalty Saleh Bakri) precariously trying juggling his dangerous involvement in the resistance movement with his position as a father figure for one of his students (Muhammad Abed El Rahman), an intelligent young man threatening to throw away his life as he seeks revenge for murder. Meanwhile, Imogen Poots plays a volunteer worker slowly realizing what it means to live in the West Bank.
Nabulsi, British born but of Palestinian heritage, actually had the idea for her directorial debut while making her 2020 BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated short film The Present, also starring Bakri, after being inspired by the story of Gilad Shalit. Shalit was an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants in 2006 and released five years later in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
“I thought wow, that is a really big imbalance in the value of human life,” she explains. “That story really stuck with me — just the idea of how you perceive the others.”
So Nabulsi took this central plotline of a captured soldier and combined it with other “cruel and absurd” stories she had gathered on her trips to Palestine, including enforced home demolitions, settler vandalism and child prisoners (she says more than 8,000 children have been processed through Israel’s military detention system since 2000). “I was really just blown away by the injustice and the discrimination, and how systematic and institutionalized it all is.”
Putting this to one side, Nabulsi says she was also very keen to “focus on the personal” in The Teacher, and “take a deep dive into the real-life experiences of someone living in that reality,” exploring the conditions that “drive a person to take the actions they take.” The result, she claims, is a film that is both a “socio-political drama” and a “human suspense drama.”
Bakri, who Nabulsi now considers “more of a collaborator,” was on board from day one (she’s told him about the idea before she’d even written the first draft). But with casting directors Leo Davis and Lissy Holm she gathered an ensemble including Poots, Rahman, Stanley Townsend, Paul Herzberg, Andrea Irvine and Mahmoud Bakri (Saleh’s youngest brother). The group stayed together in a guest house in the Palestinian countryside, just outside of Nablus, and were able to trips around the area on their days off to experience “the beautiful and the ugly” aspects of West Bank.
For the non-Palestinian actors, Nabulsi says they arrived with a “very minimal understanding” of the reality on the ground. “But by the end of the trip, they had all said to me, individually, that it had been a life-changing experience. They’ve definitely come away from it far more informed.”
Saleh Bakri (who heads to Toronto straight from Venice, where he’s on the main competition jury) may be the most visible link between Nabulsi’s acclaimed, award-winning short and her first feature, but the filmmaker says there’s another — far less obvious — easter egg. In The Present, a father and daughter (and a fridge) struggle to get back home through a series of Israeli checkpoints. In The Teacher, while checkpoints aren’t the focus, in one scene an Israeli car is waved through a checkpoint while a long line of Palestinians wait. By the side of the road, a girl sits with her father, who has been blindfolded.
“And that girl is Maryam Kanj, the same actress from The Present,” says Nabulsi. “She’s older now. But that was my hat tip to my previous film.”