Writer-director Farah Nabulsi brilliantly showcased the abject futility of living under occupation with her Oscar-nominated short The Present a couple years ago. By taking the seemingly mundane act of going shopping for an anniversary gift and portraying how cruelly impossible it can become when people with guns take it upon themselves to make it so, she evoked the tired frustration and unavoidable rage that Palestinians must endure on a daily basis. It should come as no surprise, then, that her feature debut The Teacher would follow suit, mirroring the additional runtime with a much more robust example.
Yet there’s the immediate sense of too many subplots bouncing around at the start. Between the drama surrounding the harassment of brothers Adam (Muhammad Abed Elrahman) and Yacoub (Mahmoud Bakri), then the story segues into their teacher/neighbor Basem El-Saleh’s (Saleh Bakri) past, the addition of a London-born volunteer social worker (Imogen Poots’ Lisa), and the heinous murder of a young man to delve into the corrupt nature of justice in an occupied state, it’s easy to forget a captured Israeli solider being leveraged for the release of Palestinian prisoners was also floating around once his Jewish-American father (Stanley Townsend’s Simon) randomly pops up again.
To Nabulsi’s credit, however, things begin gelling around the halfway point once these disparate scenarios start overlapping to merge in more concrete ways. Her subject is a complex one: it demands the necessary time to ensure audiences are fully comprehending the emotional gravity of the consequences that result from a perpetual state of systemic oppression inevitably graduating into violence. This is a state that throws hundreds of Palestinian children into juvenile detention for years at a time. Israeli settlers are intentionally radicalizing their “enemy” as youths to better sell the story that they are the real victims and wielding their immense power is thus only a means of self-defense.
Yacoub was incarcerated for two years as a 15-year-old for simply attending a protest. Now he’s 17 and sharing a classroom with his younger brother while having a receipt from the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) forced into his hand that demands he pay for them knocking down his home. He should be angry. He should want revenge. And no one knows this better than Basem––a man who has had everything taken from him too. It’s why he tries so hard to teach these young men the right way to fight back. Show restraint. Don’t give a reason to shoot you in cold blood. Because that’s the IDF’s goal: incite retaliation and hide behind the impunity of a justice system that declares them righteous.
It’s why a later exchange with Simon proves so biting in its frank distillation of the dynamic at play. Simon would like to believe he’s better than the IDF tearing apart homes and torturing innocent women and children for answers to the whereabouts of his son. He’d like to distance himself from the bloodshed and admit his empathy for the Palestinian plight. But it means nothing if he doesn’t do anything to stop them. Fearing his son might die prevents that. So he can’t understand how the kidnappers would do anything to conversely keep their captive alive. Not because he is worth a thousand Palestinians via exchange, but because the Israelis act like he is. The IDF set that price by treating Arabs like animals.
Moments when the characters’ actions and dialogue drive home this reality of Israel’s apartheid state are where The Teacher truly shines. Nabulsi weaves together a tapestry of different, very real examples of discrimination to show how things can get so out-of-hand. When so many stories of this sort get bogged down in both-sides-isms, however, there’s no vagueness here to the fact that a clandestine war is being waged by rebels as opposed to terrorists. That’s not to say it condones their actions, either; it merely contextualizes them. Because the tragedy in this truth is that bloodshed is the only means they have of being heard.
So many outsiders (Nabulsi is a UK-born Palestinian, so I get using Poots as an entry point for outsiders even if she blurs some “white savior” lines; Townsend’s American provides a dividing point between Jewish and Zionist; and Paul Herzberg’s IDF head posits how some just want an excuse to dehumanize Arabs) help the film avoid falling prey to a pure us vs. them mentality, but I wouldn’t begrudge you for thinking they also distract from the overall potency of the message. I would, however, argue their presence stops the heavy drama from becoming pure miserabilism. By always treading in these gray areas, Bakri and Elrahman’s Basem and Adam can let love transcend hate. Their story might need to be tragic, but it can still remain hopeful despite the inevitability of its final shot.
The Teacher premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.