EXCLUSIVE: There will be plenty of promising acquisition titles at Venice and Toronto, but here’s an intriguing one that wrapped too late for festival consideration that will be introduced to buyers in the fall market by CAA Media Finance.
The Teacher is a drama inspired by true events, set and shot in Palestine. The film marks the feature debut of British-Palestinian writer-director Farah Nabulsi, who was Oscar nominated and won the BAFTA for her short The Present. She didn’t choose an easy path for her first feature, which she scripted and which stars Imogen Poots, Saleh Bakri, Stanley Townsend, Paul Herzberg and Andrea Irvine. One to watch is Palestinian newcomer Mohamed Abdel Rahman.
Devastated by the loss of his teenage son, The Teacher follows a Palestinian school teacher Basem El-Saleh (Bakri) who struggles to reconcile his risky commitment to political resistance with the chance of a new relationship with a volunteer worker (Poots).
“The story covers the universal themes of love and loss and guilt and revenge,” Nabulsi told Deadline. “If I want to go to the inspiration, there would be numerous real life stories that I’ve come across during my travels and trips to Palestine as well as the story of Gilad Shalit. He was an abducted IDF soldier and I remember there were negotiations for an exchange of over a thousand Palestinian prisoners for him. I remember thinking, what an imbalance in the value of human life. Maybe that’s at the heart of the problem. If you don’t value others as you value yourself or your own, maybe that’s why you can’t seem to see the humanity in the other. But on the individual level, to that soldier’s parents or his loved ones, the love and loss are the same. What would anyone value what their child means? What’s interesting to me is the universality of how on the individual level as human beings we love and cherish, whether it’s our children or loved ones regardless of race, religion and political affinities. It’s an amalgamation of stories I’ve come across if you like over the years that inspired this story.”
Nabulsi said that shooting the film in occupied Palestine was a challenge, but she took to heart an option not open to many other filmmakers of Palestinian descent.
“In the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and then of course 1967 as well, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled,” Nabulsi said. “So, they physically don’t hold a Palestinian passport and many don’t hold even an international passport. So, they might be refugees in Lebanon and Syria, in Jordan. Of course, many refugees are inside Palestine as well and now of course they’ve got their descendants. You’re looking at about six million refugees. A lot of them don’t hold passports, let alone a Palestinian passport and Israel refuses the right of return for those refugees into Palestine. So, unless you have a Palestinian passport or an international passport, you cannot actually enter Palestine as a Palestinian. So, filmmakers who were born for example in Lebanon, there’s no way they can enter to make a film.”
Shooting there wasn’t easy.
“It was three grueling months,” Nabulsi said, “the emotional, physical, mental exhaustion of filmmaking regardless. I feel like I’ve come out of a battle to be honest. It was overwhelming. I did contemplate the path of least resistance, like doing it in Jordan or a different location. But I thought it a privilege to be able to actually enter Palestine and make a film in Palestine, which many Palestinian filmmakers can’t. So, there are Palestinians in diaspora, let’s say, who literally cannot even if they wanted to. In my case, I can enter. So, I felt there was a responsibility there and I also felt the authenticity of the topography, whether it’s the landscapes, the accents, the dialect, everything, and you don’t have to fake it. It’s there. It’s real and it would have been such a shame to forego that side of things.”
That meant making allowances for situations that could feel dangerous.
“In that sense, you just don’t know necessarily how long you can be shooting uninterrupted,” she said. “Towards the end of the shoot, bombs started falling on Gaza again, and we’re looking at around something like 45 people killed, of which 16 were children. This is while we’re filming. We were filming in the Nablus area and during the period of filming there were Israeli military in the city. One night we were shooting what was supposed to be a somewhat humorous scene, and the next morning we woke up to being informed that four hours after we wrapped, two kilometers from where we were, they had blown up a house where some sort of resistance fighters had taken refuge, and people had been killed. It’s a kind of a very bizarre reality that you’re filming in, and of course at some point, production was discussing look, should we continue? Should we stop? Is it safe? Are we going to film somewhere else and be able to cross through those checkpoints?”
Driving to set and seeing a family standing outside their home that had just been bulldozed was a daunting sight.
“There’s the ugly reality of the environment that you have to consider in the process and even if you cocoon yourself, which we tried to do, one minute from where we literally were shooting and also where we were staying a house was demolished halfway through our shoot,” she said. “And so, on my way to production I see a family on the side of the road with carts full of stuff and a demolished house. It was so stressful, beyond the filmmaking, which was already stressful because the temperatures were ridiculous. Every day was around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Tempers rise and IQs fall when you’re already hot and miserable.
“Even the prep was stress filled, because this film does involve a teenage boy and his struggles and his losses, as well as well as the teacher’s loss of his own son,” she said. “In the first two weeks of prep alone, seven teenage boys were killed. It’s like you’re making fiction if you like but very much based in reality and there were dozens of trees burnt by illegal Israeli settlers in the village this story is set in, and that settler violence was taking place in real time as well as in the story as well.”
Nabulsi believes the struggles are made worthwhile by the ability to show conditions in Palestine, and the difficult politics that come from the antagonism and mistrust by both sides.
“For me it comes to the root of the story itself that I wrote,” she said. “I’ve been living and breathing it for the last couple of years, and then had the privilege of filming it, and I think it comes down to justice and injustice. When people suffer gross injustice, and again, you can go to the individual or you can go to the collective of gross injustice, there is a deep pain and frustration when you have no recourse. And if your recourse to justice is the very people who are dealing out that injustice, you’ve got a huge problem. Personally, I very much I believe in a one state solution, with freedom and equality for all. I know a lot of people will go, hold on. That’s impossible. I think you have to have the will, but look at apartheid South Africa and where they are today. Is it perfect? No, but it is how it is today. Germany in the 1940s and Germany today. We can go as far back as the European slavery in America and where we are today. Is it perfect? Is there so much more work to be done? Of course, but everything is possible, if you have the will and I do think that things cannot continue as they are. Having really spent a lot of time there, I feel it really needs to change because it is an apartheid system. Jimmy Carter said it in 2006. Palestinians have been saying it for a while. Human rights Watch and Amnesty International confirmed it recently. It is, and that’s just not right.”
The film was lead produced by Cocoon Films and Native Liberty Productions. CAA Media Finance will handle U.S. sales and Wild Bunch International will be responsible for the rest of the world.
Wild Bunch co-founder Vincent Maraval said of Nabulsi’s feature debut: “We were highly impressed by Nabulsi directorial debut short The Present, that won the BAFTA and was nominated for an Oscar in 2021. When we read the script for The Teacher, it confirmed to us that Nabulsi will be a voice that matters in the world cinema stage for the future. Her way of tackling a very difficult issue and turn it into a mechanism of psychological suspense is the kind of cinematographic skill we admire at Wild Bunch.”