‘The Present’ – Another review

On Monday I wrote about this piece of anti-Israel propaganda that – absurdly – won a BAFTA award. A friend in Israel – David Guy – sent me his review and I am pleased to publish it as a Guest Post:

‘The Present’ (2020) ~ Movie Review
Yusuf & Yamine’s Bad Day Out
Cognitive Dissonance Your Name is Pallywood

By David Guy

British/Palestinian director Farah Nabulsi’s short film ‘The Present’ can be summed up in one sentence. Yusuf (Saleh Bakri) takes his daughter Yasmine (Mariam Kanj) to do some shopping and things go downhill from there. It could have worked as a comedy, but a propaganda sob story was what she was aiming for.

There’s much I can relate to. I found myself empathising with the father. I too have had to wait in long lines only to be directed by uniformed armed personnel into a least favoured line. They made me surrender my watch, belt and even my shoes before another gruff, uniformed, armed man would deign to inspect my documents. He demanded to know where I came from, where I was going, what I would be doing and even how much money I was carrying. Then every item was removed from my bags and no attempt made to help me repack. The icing on the cake is being told in no uncertain terms that I can’t bring that expensive present in because it is against the rules! JFK AIRPORT IN NEW YORK CAN BE SUCH A DOWNER.

Given that this is a movie nominated for a short film Oscar, the question must be considered whether this is a movie one must not miss or that expands the limits of the art or that is so memorable it will be the subject of water cooler discussion a year from now, parodied and copied by other film makers?

It’s not a terrible movie – or even one so bad it is good soon to be a cult movie – but if this was about Flemish, Belgians or Malaysian Chinese – or anyone other than the Palestinian eternal victim – would it warrant a prize or even a nomination? The short answer is No.

This is an adequate 3 star rated movie. Most of the criticism points out the absolute bias of the film. There is not the faintest sign that there might be a rational, reasonable purpose for Israeli actions in the disputed territories – as there are for similar procedures in Sydney, New York or Tel Aviv. It is all malevolence to humiliate Palestinians. Still, if it ignores the human side of the Israelis, it absolutely fails to acknowledge that Yusuf lives under a corrupt, Palestinian administration that robs and tortures its citizens. This begs the question whether a film has to be factually accurate or politically correct to win a prize from the Academy or even to be remembered next year. Students of film history can point to D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ (1915) considered one of the seminal influences in the language of cinema – although a love letter to the Klu Klux Klan. Not to worry. ‘The Present’ doesn’t add anything to the art of cinema but they do have one thing in common: Griffith’s evil Negro soldiers were all played by white men while Nabulsi’s evil Jewish soldiers are all played by Arabs. At first, I was puzzled that the Checkpoint dialogue was almost entirely in English with a few words of Hebrew thrown in. Then I checked the character list. It seems that in these woke times playing one ethnic group with actors from another group is simply not on …..unless that ethnic group are Jews….. Ironically Saleh Bakri, a citizen of Israel and the dominant presence in this short, received his acting training at Israel’s Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts and speaks perfect Hebrew. Perhaps he coached the others in their few lines as Israeli’s? Bakri’s break-out film was Eran Kolirin’s ‘The Band’s Visit’ (2007) which was Israel’s original Foreign Language Film submission for the 80th Academy Awards. Ironically it was rejected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences because it contained over 50% English dialogue.

‘The Present’s’ publicity seems to skip over Bakri’s Israeli connection, prefering to label him as a Palestinian actor. In such a short film (24 mins) it is almost possible to give a scene-by-scene analysis – but three scenes deserve more detailed attention. Introducing Yusuf, we find him sleeping rough next to a wall covered with graffiti. It’s all Latin lettering but I assume that was a production oversight. He is not homeless because we see him waking up in a proper bed minutes later. This leads to a sweeping shot of a wall with a watchtower. Is this film going to be a complaint about Israel’s Security Wall? I guess not, as it is never mentioned again. He joins a large group of men packed into what seems to be a tunnel. Nabulsi claimed in an interview this was ‘guerilla cinema’ (that is, filmed without permission) near Bethlehem. The implication is that he works in Israel to feed his family. One can only imagine the guilt Yusuf must be feeling that the money he has earned to buy consumer durables comes from working for the Israelis. Imagine the outrage if Israel stopped these workers entering!

At the risk of taking this on a tangent, between 1970 and 2016, the percentage of households in Gaza, Judea & Samaria and E. Jerusalem with a refrigerator rose from 11% to 98%, almost equal to the 99% in Israel. Poor Yusuf apparently must leave before the sun rises. I guess Ms. Nabulsi has never had to commute to work or begun the morning shift at a factory. It’s far more common than she might think. (By the way, again I can empathise with having to leave for work before the sun rises). Morning shifts on factory assembly lines generally start at eight. That, particularly in winter, often means leaving before sunrise, if there is any sort of commute. It is not so unusual.

Another scene that was inserted – presumably to imply that any bad thing that happens in the Palestine Authority can be blamed on the occupation – is shot in the supermarket. Yusuf has a pain and the pharmacy next door is closed – due to a family bereavement – and the supermarket is out of Panadol. This is set in Beitunia, on the outskirts of Palestinian Authority capital city Ramallah. There are at least 8 private pharmacies and there are 45 grocery stores in the town. Problem solved.

“It’s okay, Dad, there was nothing you could do.” Yusuf is briefly detained at the checkpoint. When he returns he discovers his daughter has wet herself. Here she utters the line that supposedly is the heart of this film. Perhaps it is. I guess I am a terrible father. I would have asked my daughter why she didn’t find a tree or a rock to relieve herself. There is nothing to do when you don’t help yourself.

Cognitive Dissonance Your Name is Pallywood….