The Present (2021)
Director: Farah Nabulsi
Screenwriters: Farah Nabulsi, Hind Shoufani
Starring: Saleh Bakri, Mariam Kanj, Mariam Basha
Tackling issues regarding the border crossings in the middle east, and particularly the political and racial tensions that govern the crossings of the West Bank, Farah Nabulsi’s 24 minute drama nominated for Live Action Short at the 2021 Oscars highlights how even the simple act of going shopping can be an example of inequality and a microcosm of oppression.
Starring Saleh Bakri as a father looking to cross the border from one Palestinian territory into another via a checkpoint set on an Israeli road that dissects the two locations in order to buy a new refrigerator for his wife on the day of their wedding anniversary, The Present is initially by the numbers in terms of traditional short form storytelling. A prologue of a night time border cross from work is followed by multiple scenes filled almost exclusively with exposition, out of place camera movements making the piece feel somewhat like a soap opera in its early moments. The subject is, however, much more interesting. Through the film’s early exposition, we find out that Bakri’s Yusuf has sleep issues and back issues, but that he adores his family. His wife and young daughter clearly love him back, but in their home of relative modern convenience, his refrigerator door seems to swing open at will, and as such Yusuf and his daughter Yasmine (Mariam Kanj) must travel to Israel to buy a new one.
Much of The Present takes place at the border crossing where guards with large guns seem to be the judge, jury and executioner of the Palestinians attempting to cross Israel’s territory. Yusuf is imprisoned on the border for no reason other than for not having the cash to ease his transition across, his young daughter who is no older than 8 left to sit and wait for him in the desert heat. It’s this tension with the border guards that proves to be The Present’s biggest narrative hook, and were it to have taken place entirely within the confines of the few yards either side of the West Bank, Farah Nabulsi’s film would have been much tighter and more focused.
As it is, The Present is somewhat tangential. Nabulsi and company do their best to highlight how this is an everyday occurrence, and how the people on either side of the border are not necessarily as abrupt and threatening as the guards themselves, but in watching Yusuf and his daughter arrive at the store set to sell them the refrigerator and seeing the pair add items to their shopping trolley, we are left with less time at the true point of the film’s tension, and as such are given breathing space to escape what in reality is an all-encompassing daily terror.
Regardless of narrative focus, there’s barely a frame of The Present that isn’t set on father Yusuf and thus the performance of Saleh Bakri. The Palestinian actor has a truly commanding presence, his remarkable eye colour reflecting in the light of the desert in moments of grief or anguish to truly sell the many concerns he is facing from moment to moment. Portraying a subtle physical transformation and providing a facial performance worthy of top recognition, Bakri proves himself the anchor of The Present and as such becomes the film’s most unmissable aspect.
While The Present isn’t the out-and-out success that you might expect from an Oscar nominated live action short, what it does offer is some food for thought regarding one of the most volatile and least criticised localities in the middle east; one complete with a truly excellent performance.
This film is available to watch on Netflix.