Farah Nabulsi is an Academy Award®-nominated and BAFTA® award-winning Palestinian
British filmmaker. In 2016 she started working in the film industry as a writer & producer of short
fiction films. This includes “Today They Took My Son,” endorsed by British Director Ken Loach
and screened at the United Nations.
“The Present,” her directorial debut, which she also co-wrote and produced, premiered at
Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in 2020 and won the coveted Audience Award
for Best Film. It went on to win over 50 International Film Festival Jury and Audience Awards, a
BAFTA® award, and it scored an Oscar® nomination. “The Present” was licensed internationally
including to Canal+ and Netflix Worldwide.
Nabulsi has been invited to serve as a jury member at numerous festivals and as a member of the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Teacher is Farah’s directorial fiction feature length film debut and will premiere at the 2023
Toronto International Film Festival.
Q&A with Farah Nabulsi
● The opening credits say that this was inspired by true events, can you expand on the real-life
events that inspired the film?
Despite being born, raised and educated in the UK, my blood and heritage on both my parents’
sides are very much Palestinian. One of the stories I came across during my travels to Palestine
over the years (that I also distinctly recall the UK media covering at the time when it happened), is
the story of Gilad Shalit. He was an Israeli soldier who was captured in 2006 by Palestinian
militants and in 2011, he was released in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, hundreds of
whom were women and children. And I remember thinking at the time: “Wow! – one person for
over 1,000 others! What an imbalance in value for human life.” That said, I also remember
contemplating and appreciating that on the individual level, to that soldier’s parents and loved
ones, he would be worth hundreds of thousands if not millions.
On the other hand, over the years I’ve met with and had numerous conversations with Palestinians
who have experienced first-hand many of the absurd and cruel things that also inspired the
screenplay and take place in the film. Such as the hundreds of Palestinian children being processed
through Israel’s military detention system every year, more than 8,000 children since the year 2000
alone. Or the thousands of incidents of settler violence against Palestinians that has escalated to an
all-time high just this year. Or the staggering fact that Israeli authorities and illegal Israeli settlers
have uprooted or burned over one million Palestinian olive trees since 1967 (something like 12,000
last year alone) and demolished over 50,000 Palestinian homes and structures including schools
and water facilities, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. The number in 2022 stood at over
800 in the West Bank and Jerusalem, which included around 300 houses. Entire Palestinian
families have deliberately been made homeless nearly every day of last year.
So that’s from where this film was born. This accumulation of various real-life events coupled with
my own visual and verbal imagination as a filmmaker.
● Can you speak to the film’s casting? How did you find the two brothers (Yacoub and Adam)?
They are incredible.
Yes – they truly are! So, Mahmoud Bakri, who is our YACOUB, is actually our lead actor, Saleh
Bakri’s (Basem) youngest brother! I had met him through Saleh while we were shooting my short,
“The Present,” in Palestine a couple of years back, and since learned that despite studying film
and cinematography, he was pursuing an acting career like three of his siblings and his father. So,
when the time came for casting The Teacher, we had a lovely chat and an audition, and that was
For Muhammad Abed El Rahman, who plays ADAM, it was actually Saleh’s brother Adam Bakri
(also an actor), who is a friend; during COVID, he was the one person outside of the film
development team that I allowed to read an early draft of the script at the time, with the
perspective that I wanted his suggestion regarding any young Palestinian actors he knew of that
could potentially play our ADAM (ironically with the same name)! It so happened that
Muhammad, around 17 at the time, had recently made this short film to sort of showcase his
acting skills as a newcomer. Adam had seen it, was very impressed and shared it with me.
The minute I watched it, I knew Muhammad was the one. The talent was clearly there and bizarrely
enough, he even looked like a morphed version of my eldest two sons, whom I had used as my
physical muses of how I envisaged the character of ADAM would look while writing the screenplay.
Unbeknownst to me until later down the line, I discovered Muhammad is also a cousin of Saleh,
Adam and Mahmoud Bakri! So, in some ways, the main cast of The Teacher is a bit of a family
affair…just not mine!
● Can you speak to filming in Palestine’s West Bank? What were the biggest challenges you
faced during production?
Other than the usual practical and logistical toils and turbulences of making an independent film –
tight budgets, locations not working out at the last minute, running out of time and so on – when
shooting in the West Bank of Palestine, you also have an ongoing settler colonization and military
occupation taking place in real time around you to contend with, like random flying checkpoints
being set up by the Israeli military or roads being outright closed, which throws frustrating
spanners into the filmmaking process. For example, during our limited and precious prep period,
what was supposed to be a two-day weekend turned into four days because no one could get back
to work due to road blocks. A loss of two days in the independent filmmaking world during
production is catastrophic – it literally evokes images of dollars evaporating into thin air and half
developed sets in the final cut for me!
But personally, I think the biggest challenge was the mental and emotional one…you’re making a
film that’s set in a harsh reality, while shooting in that reality in real time, with that reality
unfolding around you…convoluted, right? During the start of our shooting period, violent Israeli
settlers were torching olive trees in the village of Burin, where our story is literally set, which is
something that also takes place in the story itself! Or the example of finding a couple and their six
young children one morning at 5am on my way to our set, standing on the side of the road in front
of the rubble of their home which was just demolished a couple of hours earlier (again, something
portrayed in the film).
On another day the military blew up a house around two kilometers away from where we had just been shooting only hours before in Nablus city. They even started to drop bombs on Gaza again at one point as well, which really heightened tensions all over Palestine.
Aside from these things having everyone on edge, for me it was more the mental and emotional toll
of taking all this in while trying to remain upbeat and actually make a film. While on another
level, as a producer on the film as well, balancing a heavy responsibility to keep everyone safe, but
also to complete the film before anything bigger were to erupt.
I’ll also add that the weather was insanely hot – heatwave, our-world-is-going-to-shit hot – which
scientifically means IQs decline and tempers rise. Super challenging and sometimes verging on
delirium to be honest!
● What are you hoping international audiences will take away from the film?
My intention with The Teacher is to take audiences on an intense, emotional journey into the
lives and experiences of the characters. I hope I leave them contemplating the choices and
decisions the characters make and the cruel reality in which they are forced to make them.
● Why is TIFF the ideal platform to premiere this important story?
The Teacher tells a story of characters that represent a severely marginalized and
underrepresented people. It is a story that certainly challenges stereotypes and provides insight
into the lives and struggles of those people whose voices have often been excluded or
In my opinion, TIFF is an incredible international film festival that embraces both mainstream
and diverse stories, as well as storytellers, celebrating all the different ways there are to tell a story
through film, like no other major festival does to this degree.
This audience driven festival is a dream launch pad for our diverse film and my personal artistic
expression as a first-time feature filmmaker.
● Imogen Poots is exceptional. How did she become involved with the project?
Imogen is a brilliant actor who I think is extremely versatile and I think you will be seeing in more
and more interesting and challenging roles as her career grows. Leo Davis and Lissy Holm of Just
Casting loved the screenplay and came onboard the UK casting side of things early on in the
project. They put forward some suggestions with Imogen on that list. Imogen was very high up in
terms of an actor I could see in the role of Lisa on my personal wish list as well – so that aligned
perfectly. Imogen in turn also loved the script, so eventually we got on a nice long video call
together during one of my location scout trips to Palestine and the rest is history. The stars
aligned…literally! The energy and chemistry between Saleh and Imogen was wonderful, as actors
behind the scenes and characters on the screen.
We were all a very tight knit group on the set together in the West Bank. The camaraderie and
connection between all the actors, including Stanley Townsend, Paul Herzberg and Andrea Irvine
who also flew over, living together in this gorgeous, scenic, humble guest house in the Palestinian
countryside, was something very unique and much appreciated I was told. They had breakfast,
lunch and dinner together and even the occasional sunset walk. Each one described their time in
Palestine as a life-changing experience to me. That truly touches the heart.
● With this being your first feature film, how was the process different from your
Oscar-nominated short “The Present?” The short also starred Saleh Bakri, what was it like
re-teaming with him for The Teacher?
When we made “The Present,” I felt like I had run an intense marathon. But after making a
feature, it turns out “The Present” was a walk in the park comparatively and The Teacher was
the iron man, as far as I am concerned! An ultimate endurance test, especially in the environment
I described earlier…but, what they have in common is that with the highest highs and the lowest
lows along the way, I couldn’t feel more alive as a human being when I am making a film from
start to finish, especially one that has depth and meaning for me.
Regarding Saleh, he has become more than a lead actor in both my films. Having worked with him
before, he was the first person I told the story of The Teacher to verbally one day when I was on
a trip to Palestine, before I had even written a first draft. At the end he said it all sounds great and
I said, “Cool – and you’re going to be the teacher!” and that was that. So, when I wrote The
Teacher, Saleh was the only person I had in mind the entire time. He became a collaborator with
me further down the line. We worked on Arabic dialogue translations together, someone I could
turn to for valid advice regarding production choices and artistic opinions on the film and even
someone to complain to when feeling frustrated! He is someone who is extremely honest, sometimes brutally so, but that is what is most valuable in Saleh. Even as an actor, it’s his honesty
that manifests in his performances that makes him so exceptional.
I’ve said it before, I believe he is the Daniel Day-Lewis of the Arab world and like with any actor
you get to work with more than once, in the intense and raw environment of making a film, you
get to know them that much more each time. How they work and who they are as an artist, with
their angels and demons, and all the wonderful and varied aspects of them in between.
● Can you elaborate on the importance of the father-son-esque relationships in this film, and
how they parallel one another?
The father-son relationships in the film are the glue that holds the entire story together. The love
of a parent and what they would be willing to do for their child, to cope with their loss, to get them
back, or deal with guilt and the pursuit of self-absolution in relation to their child, is integral to
everything that takes place, whether it be the Basem-Adam, Basem-Yusef or Simon-Nathaniel
father-son relationship, or indeed the Basem-Simon father parallel. Ultimately, as Adam becomes a
surrogate son to Basem, and Basem a surrogate father, that relationship is what drives everything
that eventually ends up unfolding in the film.
As a mother myself, it’s this love and human dynamic with my own children that defines so much
of who I am and speaks to so much of what I know and feel as a human being, and no doubt, as a
filmmaker as well.
The 48th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival takes place Thursday, September 7—17, 2023.
For tickets and other details, please visit www.tiff.net