Following her Oscar-nominated short film The Present, Farah Nabulsi's feature film The Teacher, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), is an intimate, emotional journey of a Palestinian teacher.
Starring Saleh Bakri and Imogen Poots, The Teacher introduces us to schoolteacher Basem El-Saleh (Bakri) and two of his students, Adam (Muhammad Abed Elrahman) and Yacoub (Mahmoud Bakri). Adam is a gifted student, while his brother is more defiant, after previously being in military detention.
Basem, who lives in the same town as the brothers, becomes particularly invested in the boys, specifically after their home is destroyed without warning. He also gets close to a voluenteer worker, played by Poots, who Basem meets after she came to the school looking for the boys.
As the story unfolds, Basem's connection to supporting the political resistance movement connects him to a couple who have been looking for their son, who was an Israel Defense Forces soldier, and has been held hostage for years.
The Palestinian-British filmmaker explained to Yahoo Canada that during one of her trips to Palestine, she became aware of the story of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants in 2006. In 2011 Shalit was released in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. That was part of Nabulsi's beginning stage of developing The Teacher.
"I really remember at the time just thinking, whoa what an imbalance in value for human life," she said. "At the same time, during my travels to Palestine, I've met with and had so many conversations with Palestinians who have experienced firsthand much of the cruel and absurd and terrible things that also inspired, and take place, ... in the film."
"So really, it was this kind of accumulation and amalgamation of all these different real life events, coupled with my own visual, verbal imagination as a filmmaker, that brought this film together."
'My focus is very much on the personal'
While The Teacher very much looks at Palestine's socio-political landscape, at the core of Nabulsi's film is this intimacy of these characters, taking a very character-forward approach to telling this story.
"My focus is very much on the personal," Nabulsi said.
"That's what interests me and that's the part that I wanted to explore the most. The human dynamics, the emotions, the experiences and circumstances, conditions that drive someone to make the choices they make, and take the actions they take."
At the heart of that is an exploration of father-son, or parents-child, dynamics. It's an emotional touchstone for anyone who watches the film and a significant thread throughout The Teacher.
"As a parent myself, as a mother, and the love I have for my children, and the sort of human dynamic as a parent, it certainly has translated into who I am as a filmmaker, and from where this actual story was able to emerge," Nabulsi said.
"When you talk about the love of a parent, it's a universal theme, for sure. I hope it means that this was a way for audiences to be able to connect with these characters, regardless of them being very foreign to them, from a faraway land, in a landscape and environment that I'm sure many cannot relate to."
'I don't think I could have done that in the same way had I shot elsewhere'
Nabulsi made the choice to actual film The Teacher in Palestine, with the emotional events taking in the film very much front and centre in the very real place behind the camera.
"This story is definitely very close to my heart and my identity ... and I think that while it is about certain characters, it definitely is representative of a people who have been severely marginalized, and underrepresented," Nabulsi said. "It challenges stereotypes and it lends a sort of insight into the lives and struggles of those people whose voices have often been excluded or misrepresented."
In terms of deciding to shoot this movie in Palestine, the filmmaker wanted that authenticity of the typography and landscapes, but that meant this project was going to be "much more overwhelming."
"The mental and emotional toll it was going to take was going to be that much more with the reality unfurling around me in real time," Nabulsi said. "But it also, in so many ways, fuelled me and gave me that kind of energy to keep going, despite it being so difficult, despite absorbing what was going on around me."
The filmmaker gave an example of when she was on her way to set and she saw six young children standing in front of their home that had just been freshly demolished, which is something that's reflected in The Teacher.
"On the one hand, that can really be a painful thing, and on the other hand it gave me fuel to want to use my artistic expression to give a voice to those who are experiencing that reality," Nabulsi said. "I don't think I could have done that in the same way had I shot elsewhere."