The Teacher: The daily tragedy of life in occupied Palestine

The Teacher: The daily tragedy of life in occupied Palestine
5 min read
22 March, 2024

You don't have to look far to find the true events that inspired Farah Nabulsi to make The Teacher.

The British-Palestinian filmmaker's feature debut, shot in 2022, highlights not just the countless ways the Israeli occupying forces and settlers dehumanise and abuse Palestinians in the West Bank but the traumatic toll it continues to take.

From homes being unjustly demolished to settlers burning olive trees and getting away with murder, this drama is an unwavering and intimate examination of the cycle of violence, anger, resistance and hope that keeps the dream of a free Palestine alive.

"The Teacher poses considerable questions about the systemic oppression of Palestinians and how easily violence begets violence when history keeps repeating"

Rites of passage in occupied Palestine

Basem (Saleh Bakri) is a lonely English language teacher working at a school filled with boys who have been brutally held in Israeli detention centres. One of those boys is Yacoub (Mahmoud Bakri); a teen whose innocence was lost after being imprisoned for throwing stones at a protest.

"Yacoub was a good student but he came out angry," Basem tells British social worker Lisa (Imogen Poots), an earnest volunteer shocked by the number of boys who have been detained. "Some of them stop seeing the point anymore," the teacher tells her, followed by a brief silence to allow an air of hopelessness to hang between them.

A dark shadow of futility permeates much of the nearly two-hour runtime as two dual narratives involving fathers and sons interplay. First, there is the relationship between Basem and Adam (Muhammad Abed El Rahman), the bright, younger brother of Yacoub who wants to exact revenge against the Israeli settlers who brought tragedy to his family's door.

Flashbacks to Basem's personal family tragedy paint a deeper portrait of the too-frequent familial loss felt by Palestinians under Israeli occupation. His 16-year-old son was arrested alongside Yacoub but was tried as an adult by an Israeli court and given a sentence of eight years.

The cruel punishment fractures Basem's marriage; his wife, packing her bag, blames him for taking him to the protest. Incredulous, Basem reminds her that they went on protests as kids, it being one of the few things they can do to resist oppression.

It's a backstory that heightens the present-day emotional connection between Basem and Adam, a surrogate son of sorts, as well as the stakes of engaging in underground political resistance.

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US attorney Simon Cohen (Stanley Townsend) and his wife Rachel have flown into the region after their Israeli army soldier son Nathaniel was kidnapped by Palestinian resistance fighters.

It's a sub-plot inspired by former Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was held captive for over five years. Shalit was released as part of a historic prisoner exchange deal for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners and the film's fictional militant group similarly wants the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in return for Nathaniel.

They are hiding him at various places across the West Bank until a deal is met and Basem offers his home as a hiding location, putting him in the crosshairs of Israeli police.

During the third act, a confrontation between Basem and Simon occurs. There's a nervy edge to it given the volatile circumstances but one that ultimately ends with a sensitive sigh of sorrow.

It's one of the many scenes in which Nablusi humanely presents the double-standard reality of life under Israeli occupation as well as the inequality – one son's life is worth thousands of others – while Bakri reminds us why he's one of the most engrossing actors working today.

'Refusing to sugar-coat the reality of life under Israeli occupation'

So adept at presenting the interiority of his characters with a furtive look, a drag of a cigarette or a glance into the horizon, Bakri effectively portrays a beaten-down man searching for hope and meaning in the face of never-ending hardship and loss.

As a Palestinian actor, he knows the continuing pain of Israeli occupation too well which ensures every line he delivers carries a potent weight of authenticity and resonance.

El Rahman offers an engaging debut as a kid forced to grow up too quickly; he charts the emotional trajectory of Adam viscerally, his melancholy and anger palpably felt through the screen.

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While the worst of the violent cruelty exacted upon the Palestinian characters is kept out of camera shot, Nabulsi refuses to sugar-coat the harsh reality of life under Israeli occupation.

As with her BAFTA-winning short, The Present, the filmmaker offers a bleak perspective on the political and social injustices experienced by Palestinians just trying to go about their daily lives.

Yet, even at its most desolate, both films are anchored by the humanising portraits at its core. And even if the romantic subplot with Poots' volunteer worker is a superfluous addition, it's a reminder that love can always be found even in the most trying times.

The Teacher poses considerable questions about the systemic oppression of Palestinians, the occupation of Palestine, and how easily violence begets violence when history keeps repeating. "But after everything you’ve been through, you still believe there’ll be justice?” asks Adam of his teacher. Basem looks around at the olive grove, his eyes filling with tears. His answer is the one the film, the filmmaker and the people of Palestine must cling to.

“Maybe,” says Basem, his voice cracking. “Maybe, it’s possible.”

Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN

Follow her here: @HannaFlint