In the core of The teacher, an intimate exploration of life in occupied Palestine, is a question a grieving teenager asks the title character, who has suffered his own family-devastating losses. “After everything you’ve been through,” says the boy named Adam, “do you still believe there will be justice?”
Writer-director Farah Nabulsi, at the helm of her first feature film, understands the urgency of this question. For the characters in her West Bank drama, who live in a system structured against them, believing in justice is not just a matter of attitude; it requires action. Nabulsi navigates a complex storyline and doesn’t always achieve the nuance or propulsive tension the material demands, but she has a good understanding of emotional give-and-take and of everyday reality. The core of her film consists of three compelling performances, led by the striking and understated intensity of Saleh Bakri (who starred in Nabulsi’s Oscar-nominated short film, Present).
It comes down to
Uneven but often compelling.
Location: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Form: 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 built on a strong sense of place, both physical and, in terms of generational loss, historical. Alex Baranowski’s plaintive score gives voice to a legacy of longing and fear that runs through the characters’ lives, the experience of being torn from one’s homeland and, in the present day, perpetually under siege. The story opens with a traveling shot of remarkable eloquence as Bakri’s Basem drives to work from his home in the village of Burin, as the countryside gives way to a restricted militarized zone (Gilles Porte is the cinematographer).
At the school, where a mural pays tribute to “Our Martyrs,” Basem teaches English to teenage boys, including two brothers who are neighbors with him in Burin. Yacoub (an impressive Mahmoud Bakri, sibling of the protagonist) is smart, fearless and protective of younger brother Adam (Muhammad Abed El Rahman), a dedicated and talented student. And he is still adjusting to his two-year detention in military prison. One of the key real-life events that inspired Nabulsi’s screenplay is the pernicious rite of passage imposed on thousands of Palestinian youth for alleged crimes against the Israeli state, such as participating in protests or throwing stones at soldiers.
Judiciously used flashbacks reveal that the detention mill has also affected Basem’s family. His carefully worded non-sequitur questions to a fruit seller (Muayyad Abd Elsamad) indicate that he maintains his ties to the resistance movement. This will ultimately connect him to the story of the Cohens (Stanley Townsend and Andrea Irvine), a wealthy American couple who are looking for their son, an Israeli army soldier who has been held hostage for three years.
With his watchful gaze and fierce compassion, Bakri (The blue kaftan, Wajib) threads the needle between Basem’s commitment to justice and his intellectual passions; it is no coincidence that the hiding place for his gun is on his bookshelves. Those books help fuel the flirtation between him and Lisa (Imogen Poots), a Londoner who volunteers as a counselor at the school. She makes her interest in Basem clear, he lends her poetry by Mahmoud Darwish and political treatises. Initially moved by the awkward grace of the beaten, the two actors’ unforced performances are completely alive.
Basem and Lisa’s growing involvement in Adam’s situation naturally brings them closer together. She is shocked to witness the demolition of Yacoub and Adam’s family home, with Israeli soldiers wielding the excavator in what feels like spite, thinly disguised as policy. “It was just their turn,” Basem tells her with hard-won sangfroid. The brothers and their wailing mother sift through the rubble, and life goes on, in the cramped quarters of a relative’s home and sometimes amid the rubble of their former home, a kind of living open-air museum of political consequences.
But recovery is a much greater challenge after Yacoub’s fateful encounter with an Israeli settler (an almost wordless portrayal by production designer Nael Kanj, as a completely hissing figure). Lisa puts the family in touch with a sympathetic Israeli lawyer (Einat Weizmann) to pursue the murder charge, but as to whether the courts are capable of delivering justice to Palestinians when the plaintiff is an Israeli settler, it’s easy to Adam’s skepticism. Soon, the grief-stricken boy decides that an eye-for-an-eye revenge is the only course of action, and Basem is determined to convince him otherwise.
What unfolds is a multiple 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 hopes 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 maintains an ambivalence-free anger that portrays the Palestinians as the evildoers who took her son. One of the scenes that defies most expectations is an unlikely exchange between a desperate Simon and an unguarded Basem. Simon – and the film – makes an important distinction when he tells Basem about the Israeli authorities: “They are not my people.”
In contrast, there is no nuance at all in the treatment of Lieberman (Paul Herzberg), Israel’s head of security in the West Bank and the man leading the search for the Cohens’ son. In a story told from the point of view 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’s not a white savior in this scenario, but the screenplay acknowledges the trope: at one point a character jokingly refers to her, not without affection, as Miss United Nations. Nabulsi’s dialogue often has to do with the way people, as opposed to dramatic constructions, actually talk. And Poots, with her effortless warmth, conveys the unquestioned privilege of her character’s life in England, but also the candor and cleverness and, when push comes to shove, strategic quick thinking.
Bakri’s performance is unpredictable from moment to moment, and the ways in which Adam and Lisa surprise him register with subtle power in his gaze. Newcomer El Rahman brings youthful fire to every aspect of Adam, and the transformation he embodies, from the boyish earnestness of the English student at the start of the film to the final haunting image of him, is extraordinary. While the plot mechanics may stumble here and there, The teacher deftly avoids neat, smug lessons. Basem and Adam take turns saving each other, and there’s nothing easy or simple about that.