Not for the first time this month, a short film has used a child's innocuousness to justify its climax. The first being the wannabe thriller, Khilauna, the second of the four-part anthology on Netflix, Ajeeb Daastaans. The 'child will be a child' line of thought can end up either disguising or highlighting a lazy screenplay. In Khilauna, for example, the 'twist' became a foregone conclusion that just made me scoff at the callousness of the makers. Thankfully, it is not the case in The Present (2020), a 24-minute short that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film this year.
The film follows Yusef (Saleh Bakri) with his daughter Yasmine (Maryam Kanj) on a day out to buy a gift for his wife Noor (Mariam Kamel Basha) on their wedding anniversary. We already know that the trip from home (near the border wall) to Beitunia through the infamous Israeli Checkpoint 300, near Bethlehem, will not be an average grocery shopping hustle. It is more ominous, ending in a choice between a fridge and fatality.
Yusef's powerlessness is alluded to in the very first scene, where he stands dwarfed by the grand immensity of the border wall, overarching, threatening and all-encompassing. His chronic back pain is a physical manifestation of the chronic ailment of living under occupation. Somehow, the milk gone sour signals a looming threat. Stakes are high, as Noor's forehead lines can testify. The rumble of a dysfunctional fridge becomes a battle cry.
The dispensation of humanity at West Bank checkpoints has the status of a footnote in the broader, heftier discussions on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The director, Farah Nabulsi, in her directorial debut here, gives this elemental human ache and despair a face. Yusef's eyes betray what his rigid body language doesn't: the haste that comes with fear; the helplessness and indignancy; and finally, the anger.
Look out for his eyes when he is asked the purpose of his crossing at the checkpoint. We are asked this question at the customs counter of international airports. He, on the other hand, isn't on such lofty travels. The eyes reflect the decimated integrity on having to reveal an entire grocery list in front of young rifled guards. Stripping away of privacy awakes the wound and leaves it throbbing for the rest of the day.
Unlike Khilauna, the little girl's final action here is not played for dramatic effect, nor is the maker getting by on the 'kids being kids' non-explanation. It feels earned. Yasmine is not that precocious child of countless Hindi films, the mouthpiece for the adults who have imagined her; it is not just believable but altogether understandable that a child would do anything to get back home after a long day in the heat, when the giddiness of the adventure dwindles and is replaced by lethargy.
The most telling scene of the short, however, doesn't come at the end but right in the first few minutes. A wide-angle shot of an overcrowded checkpoint is captured on location. Nabulsi didn't know whom to ask for the permit to shoot, so she shot the scene without one at all. The art of making films about systemic injustices can become a political act very quickly, a rebellion where your moral compass is tested; at what point do you succumb to the coloniser whilst highlighting the trauma of the colonised?
Nabulsi, a British Palestinian, switched careers from a banker in the City of London to an activist and filmmaker after a 2013 trip to Palestine. Her anger stemming from western ideas of injustice and human rights has a passionate rawness. But she doesn't let Yusef hijack the story by making his anger palpable. Almost till the very end, Yusef remains more desperate than angry; just another man, trying to reach his wife, before the day ends.
The Present streams on Netflix.