The "Phenomenal Journey" of Oscar- and BAFTA-Nominated Short 'The Present'

THE PRESENT and inset of director Farah Nabulsi
Courtesy of Farah Nabulsi

Farah Nabulsi discusses her directorial debut, which follows a father and daughter forced to navigate Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and is now up for the biggest film awards on both sides of the Atlantic. 

One of the biggest takeaways from this year’s BAFTA nominations — aside from arguably the most diverse list in the awards’ history — was a clear dividing line between the British Academy and the Oscars. For the first time in years, it seemed that the array of BAFTA nominees isn’t simply a mirror image of those across the Atlantic.

That being said, there were some films that were acknowledged by both sets of voters. Nomadland, The Father, Promising Young Woman and Sound of Metal all landed multiple BAFTA and Oscar nominations. And further down the list, another — smaller — title has also managed to pick up dual nods.

The Present — nominated for the best live-action short Oscar and the British short film BAFTA (and the only short up for both) — is the directorial debut of Farah Nabulsi and a film that has quietly been gathering steam since it first bowed in France’s Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in early 2020, where it won the audience award.

For Nabulsi, a former investment banker who left the corporate world in 2016 to focus on filmmaking, just to screen at the festival would have been enough.

“Even being officially selected, I was like OK, I’m done,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter from London. “Then we won the audience award, and it was like, wow, first festival premiere, won the audience award, done.”

But the film wasn’t nearly done. The Present then screened at the Cleveland Film Festival, winning the all-important Oscar-qualifying jury award, and would carry on to around 40 more international festivals, picking up in excess of 20 top prizes. In what Nabulsi says “ties it all up in a perfect bow,” in January — just two weeks before the Oscar shortlists were announced and almost exactly a year since its first festival premiere — the film won its second Academy-qualifying award, this time at Australia’s Flickerfest festival.

By this time, the film had also been acquired by Netflix (for worldwide excluding France and Japan), although the streamer kept quiet about the deal until the the Oscar nominations were announced.

“So the whole journey has been phenomenal,” says Nabulsi. “Except that I’ve experienced the majority of it — with the exception of Clermont — from my couch.”

At 24 minutes long, The Present has an incredibly simple premise, following a man who sets out with his young daughter to buy his wife an anniversary gift (a not-quite-so-romantic yet highly practical fridge).

But it’s not so straightforward.

The man is Palestinian (played by renowned screen and stage star Saleh Bakri) and lives in the West Bank near Bethlehem. And his shopping trip soon becomes a series of demoralizing frustrations as he’s forced to navigate Israeli checkpoints, heavily armed IDF soldiers and segregated roads, spending hours waiting behind bars as his ID is checked and rechecked, and renegotiating what would otherwise be a simple route as army roadblocks spring up unannounced. The powerful impact of the film comes from the simplicity of his task and the hurdles put up in his way (at one point he pleads with an Israeli soldier to let him pass, saying, “I just want to go home, my house is just there,” pointing up a hill).

Nabulsi, a British-born Palestinian, says she’s visited the West Bank numerous times and experienced these checkpoints, big and small, more than 100 of which are scattered across the occupied territories. However, the ultimate inspiration for her story came from a friend living in Hebron, where an entire section of the ancient city, known as Shuhada Street, is closed off to its Arab population.

“This guy lives on Shuhada Street and has a checkpoint 80 meters from his house,” she says. “So no matter where he wants to go, what he wants to do, who he wants to see or what he wants to get, he has to go through a checkpoint.”

And this checkpoint, Nabulsi notes, is a particular size, restricting what can be brought through. “If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t go,” she says. So if her friend wanted a new couch, or, like in The Present, a fridge, it just wouldn’t be possible.

“In theory, you can ask for permission, but these checkpoints aren’t here to make lives easier,” she says, adding that they exist to “to deliberately frustrate and humiliate” and to “forcefully encourage” the Palestinians to leave.

So Nabulsi wrote her story and co-scripted the film with Palestinian poet and filmmaker Hind Shoufani (who also served as editor). From day one, she says she’d been picturing Bakri — known for his collaborations with Annemarie Jacir and for playing Elia Suleiman’s father in The Time That Remains — as her lead, needing someone who could “understand at his core” what the role was about and bring the sort of “dignity and intensity” it needed. Thankfully, Shoufani knew Bakri, so introductions were made, a script was sent and that was that. Says Nabulsi: “The world conspired!”

Production took place in 2019 around Bethlehem, with scenes filmed at the real-life Checkpoint 300 — a notoriously volatile and busy crossing Nabulsi describes as “worse than a battery farm” and where it can sometimes take more than three hours to pass through in rush hour — and at a fake checkpoint built especially for the film. The team did such a good job on the fake checkpoint that the local Palestinian communities genuinely thought it had been erected by the Israeli army, with Nabulsi forced to send out runners to assure them that it wasn’t real.

“We had cars turning around and people coming out, the rumors were spreading…. I felt terrible, but it did mean that, authentically, we did an awesome job!”

Anyone who has visited the West Bank or followed the ongoing political situation inside the Israeli-occupied territories with any detail will no doubt be very much aware of the checkpoints, which have been widely criticized by human rights groups for many years.

But Nabulsi notes that the vast majority of the audiences across the international festivals where The Present has screened had little or no idea about this “reality on the ground,” with her film helping generate a lot of interest, intrigue, empathy, questions and contemplation.

“It really seems to have resonated,” she says. “And they’ve rewarded it.”

Having written and produced three well-received earlier shorts about the realities and injustices facing Palestinians — Nightmare of Gaza, Today They Took My Son and Oceans of Injustice, garnering praise from the likes of John Pilger, Ken Loach, Noam Chomsky and Alice Walker — the filmmaker claims her aim is to create work that raises the global social conscious.

“I want to make films that that do what all great films should do, which is to give audiences an emotional experience,” says Nabulsi, who is next prepping her first feature, The Teacher, with Bakri set to star again. “But I also want to make films that speak to me as a human being, as a filmmaker, as someone with Palestinian origin, speaks to my identity.”

But what of the all-important (and potentially soon-to-be Oscar-winning) fridge, last seen being pushed away from an Israel checkpoint and into the dark?

“It’s just so sweet in Palestine — it was an actual brand-new fridge that a Palestinian from a fridge shop said we could use,” says Nabulsi. “He loaned it to us.”