At the core of The teacher, an intimate exploration of life in occupied Palestine, is a question from a grieving teenager to the title character, who has herself suffered family-shattering losses. “After everything you’ve been through,” says the boy named Adam, “do you still believe there will be justice?”
Writer and director Farah Nabulsi, directing her first feature film, understands the urgency of this question. For the characters in her drama set in the West Bank, who live in a system that is against them, belief in justice is not just a question of attitude; it requires action. When navigating a complex narrative line, Nabulsi doesn’t always achieve the nuance or driving tension that the material demands, but she has a keen sense of the emotional give-and-take and everyday realities. At the heart of her film are three captivating performances, led by the striking and understated intensity of Saleh Bakri (who starred in Nabulsi’s Oscar-nominated short film). The gift).
Uneven but often captivating.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Pour: Saleh Bakri, Imogen Poots, Muhammad Abed El Rahman, Stanley Townsend, Paul Herzberg, Mahmoud Bakri, Andrea Irvine
Director-screenwriter: Farah Nabulsi
1 hour 58 minutes
Set and filmed in the West Bank, The teacher is based on a strong sense of place, both physical and, in terms of generational loss, historical. Alex Baranowski’s plaintive score expresses a legacy of longings and fears that runs through the characters’ lives, the experience of being torn from home and constantly under siege in the present. The story begins with a travel shot of remarkable eloquence, as Bakris Basem drives to work from his home in the village of Burin as the landscape fades into a military restricted zone (Gilles Porte is the cinematographer).
At the school, where a mural honors “Our Martyrs,” Basem teaches English to teenagers, including two brothers who are his neighbors in Burin. Yacoub (an impressive Mahmoud Bakri, sibling of the protagonist) is smart, fearless and protective of his younger brother Adam (Muhammad Abed El Rahman), a dedicated and talented student. And he is still recovering from his two-year sentence in a military prison. Chief among the true events that inspired Nabulsi’s screenplay was the ominous rite of passage imposed on thousands of Palestinian youths for allegedly committing crimes against the Israeli state, such as participating in protests or throwing stones at soldiers .
Carefully used flashbacks show that the internment camps also affected Basem’s family. His carefully worded, non-consecutive questions to a fruit seller (Muayyad Abd Elsamad) signal that he continues to have ties to the resistance movement. This will eventually connect him to the story of the Cohens (Stanley Townsend and Andrea Irvine), a wealthy American couple searching for their son, an Israeli Defense Force soldier who has been held hostage for three years.
With his watchful gaze and fierce compassion, Bakri (The blue kaftan, Wajib) combines Basem’s commitment to justice and his intellectual passions; It’s no coincidence that his pistol’s hiding place is on his bookshelves. These books fuel the flirtation between him and Lisa (Imogen Poots), a Londoner who works as a volunteer counselor at the school. She makes her interest in Basem clear; he lends her poems by Mahmoud Darwish and political treatises. Initially touched by the awkward grace of the lovers, the two actors’ casual performances are quite lively.
Basem and Lisa’s growing involvement in Adam’s situation naturally brings them closer together. She is horrified to witness the demolition of Yacoub and Adam’s family home as Israeli soldiers wield the excavator in a seeming malice thinly disguised as politics. “It was just your turn,” Basem tells her with hard-won nonchalance. The brothers and their weeping mother search through the rubble and life goes on, in the confines of a relative’s house and sometimes amid the rubble of their former home, a kind of living open-air museum of political strife.
However, after Yacoub’s unfortunate encounter with an Israeli settler (an almost wordless performance from production designer Nael Kanj as a completely hissable character), recovery is far more difficult. Lisa puts the family in touch with a sympathetic Israeli lawyer (Einat Weizmann) to pursue murder charges. But when it comes to the question of whether the courts are capable of delivering justice to Palestinians when the plaintiff is an Israeli settler, it is easy to share Adam’s skepticism. Soon the grieving boy decides that equal revenge is the only way, and Basem is determined to convince him otherwise.
What unfolds is a complex story of fathers and sons: Basem and the son he lost to a heartless and vengeful system; Basem and his growing paternal bond with Adam; Simon Cohen and the son he wants to save. As he and his wife move freely between various checkpoints, Simon’s eyes are opened to the suffering and persecution of the Palestinians, while his wife holds on to an ambivalent anger that portrays the Palestinians as the evildoers who kidnapped their son. One of the film’s most expectant scenes is an unlikely exchange between a desperate Simon and an unguarded Basem. Simon – and the film – makes an important distinction when he tells Basem, referring to the Israeli authorities, “They are not my people.”
In contrast, there is no nuance at all in the treatment of Lieberman (Paul Herzberg), the Israeli security chief in the West Bank and the man who leads the search for the Cohens’ son. In a story told from the perspective of the oppressed, it would be wrong to portray him as anything other than a villain, but a little more shading wouldn’t have hurt.
As for Lisa, she is not a white savior in this scenario, but the script acknowledges this: at one point a character jokingly, not without fondness, refers to her as “Miss United Nations.” Nabulsi’s dialogues often reflect the way people actually speak, as opposed to dramatic constructs. And Poots, with her effortless warmth, conveys the undeniable privilege of her character’s life in England, but also the openness and cleverness and, when it counts, strategic quick thinking.
Bakri’s performance is unpredictable from moment to moment, and the way Adam and Lisa each surprise him is reflected in his gaze with subtle power. Newcomer El Rahman brings youthful passion to every aspect of Adam, and the transformation he embodies, from the boyish seriousness of the English student at the start of the film to the final haunting image of him, is extraordinary. Even though the plot mechanics may stumble here and there, The teacher cleverly avoids neat, complacent teaching. Basem and Adam take turns rescuing each other, and nothing is easy or simple.