‘The Present’ – On Netflix – Makes Apartheid Visible

This year at the Oscars ‘The Present,’ directed by Farah Nabulsi, represented Palestine in the short live-action film category. It did not win. It did win, however, the best short film at the ‘British Academy for Films and Television,’ as well as at the Cleveland, Brooklyn, and Palm Springs Film Festivals. Incidentally, an Israeli film in the same Oscar category, ‘White Eye,’ also didn’t win. Maybe the two films had simply canceled each other out (more about it later).

What brings me to write about the film, which I recently watched on Netflix, is the question of Apartheid in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in regard to the Palestinian people, very much in the news lately. Just earlier this month, according to the Times of Israel: “Poll finds a quarter of US Jews think Israel is ‘apartheid state’.” These numbers are higher in Europe and elsewhere, while Israel keeps rejecting this label as libel. However, for Israelis and Jews worldwide to bury our heads in the sand regarding this escalating sentiment won’t help matters, or change the terrible situation on the ground. Which is what the short film ‘The Present” had set out to show.

With limited success, in my view. As for the plot: The film centered on a father and daughter in the Palestinian enclaves of the Israeli-occupied West Bank who are trying to buy a wedding anniversary gift. From their small village they travel to Beitunia, a Palestinian town near Ramallah, where they buy some groceries and a new refrigerator. Their progress in both directions is impeded by roadblocks and checkpoints, culminating in a harrowing scene when at a checkpoint near their home, a group of young Israeli soldiers tries to prevent them from passing through with their present back home.

As for the film itself, I do understand why the Academy voters hadn’t selected it the winner. While as the story of the father and daughter (Saleh Bakri and  Maryam Kanj) rings true, is well-acted, and very emotionally engaging, some of what they go through—especially at the end—doesn’t make sense at all. In the beginning there is a scene at a real checkpoint, when the father goes to work in the morning, which is very real and horrifying. But the checkpoint near their small village is utterly ridiculous and cartoonish.

Yes, checkpoints are placed in the West Bank in strategic locations where Palestinians cross into Israel and coming back from Israel. There are roadblocks and such when military situations demand them. But no checkpoint, quite an elaborate one at that, is placed near a small Palestinian village of a few houses, separating that village from a nearby Palestinian town where the father goes to buy the groceries and the present. No Palestinian in the West Bank leaves his village to buy milk and toilet paper and has to pass through a checkpoint in order to do that. Checkpoints are bad, absolutely so, but this one was placed there artificially by the director just to score a point. She misses. *

The ‘bad’ Israeli soldiers (speaking Hebrew with an Arabic accent) aren’t real, just as the whole situation isn’t real. To make things worse, the little girl (who earlier peed in her pants just seeing the Israeli soldiers and their threatening behavior towards her father) now saves the day by wheeling the trolley with the refrigerator on the road. It’s no more plausible than if I’ll try to push an elephant off the road. For no apparent reason—another artificial plot point—the truck that brought the fridge had to stop, so that the father will continue his journey by wheeling his fridge back home on a trolley. Sympathetic as I am to the Palestinians’ plight and aspirations, the last scene at the “checkpoint” stretches the imagination big time, and it is just about ludicrous. It’s a pity that such a good idea, and overall a good film at its core, gets a propagandistic treatment at times, especially at the end. **

However, regarding the larger point the film tries to make (including, I assume, female empowerment), it is more successful. That the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own, was pointed out here in this blog plenty of times. That the occupation must end, likewise. The inhumanity of it all, of course. But concerning Apartheid, it was a close call for me so far. In fact, in my April post—”What’s Behind the Latest Buzzwords: ‘Israeli-Palestinian Confederation’?”—I termed it “an Apartheid-in-progress.” I stick by this definition, for now, though no doubt every day that passes without a solution brings the situation on the ground closer to a real Apartheid.

What Israel doesn’t get, not only regarding the Palestinian people and conflict but also about the increasing discomfort and doubts spreading among American Jews, is that the current situation is unsustainable. Just ‘managing the situation’ won’t solve anything and doesn’t work anymore. Calling it ‘unfeasible’ and ‘unsolvable,’ likewise. The last flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has shown, at least as to the ‘media wars’ and the opinions of most people around the world, that Israel is losing that war. And rightly so. A film like ‘The Present’ most definitely underscores this point, and helps spread the word. 

* According to the IDF, a Palestinian civilian in the West Bank can travel from the northern city of Jenin to Bethlehem just south of Jerusalem, without encountering a single military checkpoint. (Wikipedia.)

** According to program director Col. Triber Bezalel, the IDF employs humanitarian officers at various checkpoints. These officers are tasked with making life easier for those who cross the borders and aiding the elderly and sick. (Wikipedia.)

*** The ‘Leave a Comment’ link is the last tag below, in blue.

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