Cinema Without Borders: The Teacher—Father's courage

In this weekly column, the writer explores the non-Indian films that are making the right noises across the globe. This week, we talk about Farah Nabulsi’s debut feature The Teacher
Cinema Without Borders: The Teacher—Father's courage

Saleh Bakri is an actor whose work the world needs to take a deeper dive into and celebrate a lot more than it has so far. The Palestinian actor’s handsome face is like a canvas animated with an abundance of emotion—turmoil, trauma, rage, devastation, resistance, liberation, love, and hope. He isn’t just the titular character in British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi’s debut feature The Teacher but also its ideological crux and moral core. As the camera stays acutely close to his face and captures every fleeting expression, Bakri anchors the film, lends it gravitas and quietly lifts it to a compelling emotional high even when the narrative ever so often threatens to keel over and slip into cliches and contrivances, mundanity and melodrama.

Bakri plays a Palestinian schoolteacher, Basem El-Saleh, who is committed to providing positive and progressive education to his embattled students in the West Bank while grappling with a personal tragedy involving his son Yousef and the eventual end of his marriage. He is particularly protective of one of his bright students, Adam (Muhammad Abed El Rahman), who is going through a loss himself.

On the sidelines is a sprinkling of Westerners. A British social worker Lisa (Imogen Poots) whom Basem begins to bond with and whom the children sarcastically call “Miss United Nations”. Then there is a Jewish-American attorney Simon Cohen (Stanley Townsend) whose son Nathaniel, an Israeli soldier, is being held captive by a Palestinian resistance group.

Though the film was shot a while ago, entirely in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, it acquires a throbbing urgency and resonance in the light of the ongoing war in Gaza. Real and reel collide in pressing ways. No surprise that the UK-Qatar-Palestine production that premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival won the jury award for Nabulsi and the best actor trophy for Bakri at the recent Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah.

The film provides a ringside view of the torn life of Palestinians in the West Bank. More than that, it contextualises and platforms their emotions. The sudden bulldozing of Adam’s home, torching of their olive trees, theft of land, the raids and intrusions by the settlers, the detentions of the young, the unrest among them, the state deliberately not bringing charges against settlers who have committed crimes and the most horrendous of all—the insane human toll.

There are moments that send a chill down the spine. Like Basem arguing with his wife about the need for protesting and taking to the streets. Bakri commands the scene as he asks her a flurry of rhetorical questions—is occupation normal, should we kneel and accept it, is it fine to be oppressed and have your head forced to the ground? He is equally persuasive when he tells Adam that revenge achieves nothing, and that the killing of a murderous settler wouldn’t bring a dead Palestinian back to life.

The bilingual film—in English and Arabic—has an authenticity and rootedness to it when it comes to the West Bank and its denizens but the foreigners—despite Poots’ valiant attempt—remain flat and flaccid if not entirely caricatured. The twists and turns of the plot feel more needlessly convoluted than organic, and the elements of mystery and romance turn out cringing, forced and almost laughable. 

In a crucial scene in the film, Basem tells Simon that the Palestinian resistance organisation will keep his son Nathaniel alive because “they know that your son’s life is worth a thousand sons of mine”. Ultimately, it’s this imbalance of power and relative worth (or the lack of it) of human lives that is the font of Nabulsi’s creative anger that propels her film. It also turned out to be the biggest takeaway for me, besides Saleh Bakri, of course.

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