“The Present” — A Painful Short Film Tells the Whole Story of What It Means to be Palestinian

By Miko Peled

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In “The Present,” as throughout all of Palestine, soldiers, police officers, secret police, or Shabak agents, have the power — indeed they are instructed — to harass, humiliate, and take the lives of Palestinians in the most arbitrary fashion.

OCCUPIED PALESTINE — The Present” — a Palestinian film directed by Farah Nabulsi, with Saleh Bakri in the main role — was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Live Action Short Film. In the end it did not win an Oscar, although it was deserving of one. In his acceptance speech, Travon Free, who won the award for his movie “Two Distant Strangers,” quoted James Baldwin, who said that “the most despicable thing a person can be is indifferent to other people’s pain.”

“The Present” is only about 23 minutes long, yet it encomapses the totality of Palestine and the Palestinian experience. It also shows the indifference that is so prevalent to the pain of Palestinians.

The story is simple; in fact, it could not be more simple. A father, Yusef, played convincingly by Saleh Bakri, wakes up in the morning and takes his daughter Yasmin, played beautifully by Mariam Kanj, to buy a gift for his wife on the day of their anniversary. The gift is a surprise and the two set out happily planning to return and surprise the mother. But they are Palestinians living in Palestine and as such they are not permitted to enjoy even the simplest of pleasures.

The short trip to the store and back is filled with the indignities and humiliation that are part of a Palestinian’s daily life. These indignities are imposed on men, women, and even children. Even a father wanting to spend a special day with his daughter is denied that pleasure because Palestine is occupied and governed by a ruthless militant regime that is not only indifferent to the suffering and the feelings of Palestinians; it humiliates them and makes their life unliveable as a matter of policy.

An alternate path

Anyone who has been to Palestine has seen the checkpoints placed on roads where one part of the road, usually the wider part, provides free and easy access to Jews while Palestinians have to go through a narrow path and a checkpoint. Jews walk or drive freely and Palestinians are stopped; they must show their ID cards and quite often are randomly held for hours. Some are killed.

Humiliation, degradation and fear are built into the part of the road through which Palestinians must pass. Israeli soldiers and contractors who operate the checkpoints have long known that security is not their purpose, but rather humiliation and a show of power, such as it may be.

In “The Present,” the father and daughter leave their home, which is walking distance from the checkpoint, to go to the store. As they stand and wait, a car with Israelis drives by and the soldiers wave them through with a smile. I’ve seen and experienced this countless times as I drove through checkpoints. “Shalom, ma nishma,”  Hello, how are things, they say; and I answer back “Yofi hakol beseder,” Great, all is well.

The Present two roads
Scenes from “The Present.” Credit | Native Liberty

For reasons beyond understanding, the soldier at this checkpoint decides to pull Yusef out of the line and make him sit and wait in a cage built next to the road. The young daughter has to sit outside the cage and wait as well. There are no facilities, and no one cares what happens to the Palestinians, be they children or adults.

At last they leave the checkpoint and the daughter straggles behind her father as they walk to the bus stop. Yusef turns to see why his daughter is walking so slowly and he realizes she is embarrassed and uncomfortable because she has wet her pants. Yusef cuddles his daughter and tries to comfort her in this moment of shame and discomfort. They must board the bus like that until they reach a store, where he is able to buy her new clothes and eventually the gift they had gone to buy for Yasmin’s mother.

Back pain

Anyone who has suffered from severe chronic back pain, to the point where pain medication is needed constantly, can relate to this movie. In a brilliant aside, Yusef suffers from terrible back pain. In fact, in the very first scene we see him take his meds. Then his wife asks him how his back is doing and he replies, “same as always.”

On top of the indignities, the humiliation, the constant fear of the soldiers, and the ease with which they use their weapons on Palestinians, Yusef is struggling with this constant pain. He had not anticipated that their journey would last as long as it did and therefore he did not have his meds with him when the pain hit. He says nothing but his face says it all.

The Present Back Pain
Scenes from “The Present.” Credit | Native Liberty

At the store, Yusef asks why the pharmacy next door is closed — a death in the family, he is told. “Have you any painkillers?” he asks, “We did but we are sold out,” the lady at the register tells him. Now he knows the pain will remain with him and the day is not yet over.

Yusef and Yasmin proceed to purchase the gift, and return home. But on the way they must still go through the checkpoint, the same checkpoint where they had both already suffered humiliation. Now it is evening, the memories come back; the soldiers remember Yusef and harass him again for no reason; his pain, both physical and emotional, are severe and reach a boiling point.

An eerie resemblance

One of the soldiers at the checkpoint bears an eerie resemblance to a solider I had encountered once while traveling with a Palestinian friend. We were traveling in the West Bank to visit a mutual friend and a checkpoint was placed on the road for no explicable reason. The young soldier in charge was white — as in European white — with a beard. He wasn’t tall and he wore his helmet and gun in a clumsy manner. Like the soldier in the movie, he had no reason to stop us from proceeding but he had the power and the gun and so he was king.

The Present IDF Soldiers
Scenes from “The Present.” Credit | Native Liberty

As these words are written, Jerusalem is burning and Israelis are in the streets calling for the killing and forced expulsion of Palestinians. In “The Present,” as throughout all of Palestine, soldiers, police officers, secret police, or Shabak agents, have the power — indeed they are instructed — to harass, humiliate, and take the lives of Palestinians in the most arbitrary fashion. Farah Nabulsi with Saleh Bakri gave the world a glimpse into a day in the life of a Palestinian. How long will the world remain indifferent?

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