Saleh Bakri on starring in the Oscar-nominated 'The Present'

Saleh Bakri opens up about Farah Nabulsi's 'The Present' which is nominated for the Best Live Action Short Film at the 93rd Academy Awards this April.
Saleh Bakri on starring in the Oscar-nominated 'The Present'

Farah Nabulsi's haunting short film The Present stars Arab cinema star Saleh Bakri as a loving father and husband forced to confront his own helplessness when it comes to being in control of his family’s destiny under occupation. Bakri’s character Yusuf is Palestinian and his daily movements are “coordinated” by the erratic temperaments of Israeli soldiers. Men and women who are oftentimes not even born in the land they now command away from its indigenous people.

There are endless nuances in The Present which deals with everything from how to be a truly loving father, to how to find one’s inner manhood in a world that is constantly trying to put you down — with displays of jealousy from petty people to those who are intrinsically a cut above them in between. But the real genius of the film lies not only in its phenomenal casting of Bakri — a coup! — but also in its length. In fact, The Present tells this powerful, fully formed, standalone story in just under 25 minutes.

Nina caught up with Saleh Bakri via email and WhatsApp and through his thoughtful, insightful and generous answers, rediscovered why he is still one of the best interviews and coolest men around. A true star, all shine and charisma with no pretenses. Fingers crossed for the Oscars.

One gets an eerie feeling watching this film in our current situation because this is perhaps the best time for humanity to finally realize what Palestinians have been experiencing since 1948. Do you think lessons were learned during this pandemic?

I don’t feel any difference since I shot the film. And the self isolation didn’t make any difference in how I personally see the story, because I didn’t see any difference in reality! Israel continued the same crimes during the pandemic. And the fact that they continued perpetuating the same crimes during the pandemic doubles the crimes. The crime is doubled, because isolating Gaza and keeping it in this siege with their very poor facilities for helping people in a time of pandemic — this is a big crime. It is a bigger crime than the siege itself. So the only difference is just in a bad sense, not in the good sense, unfortunately, in this place on the planet. The crimes continue and don’t seem like they will stop after the pandemic. If they continued during a pandemic why would they ever stop after the pandemic?

They continued, they struck on Syria with war planes, they killed and continued the same crimes. Nothing’s changed and I’m not so optimistic about the close future, at least.

In which way is Yusuf similar to you and how do you differ from this character?

I’m like Yusuf, I think I’m a good father — a warm, caring, hugging father. How do I differ from him? Maybe I don’t have a back problem as he has, maybe this is the only difference from him. We’re not very different, we are almost the same.

What was it like to work with the young actress Mariam Kanj, who plays your daughter Yasmine in the film?

She’s a fantastic actress. She has a great talent and it was fun to work together. And we became friends. And I’m friends with her family also so it’s like she is my cousin. It was really good to work with such a talent.

Of course, there is a culminating moment at the near end of the film which I won’t give away. But have you ever behaved in the same way as Yusuf?

Yes I have. There was a similar moment once when an Israeli security threatened me with a gun because she thought I swore at her. I didn’t, I just spoke in Arabic, said something in Arabic and she thought I was swearing at her. She was an Israeli soldier from Ethiopian heritage and she had asked me for an I.D.. And I laughed and said “it’s funny that you, an African woman, ask me for I.D. — it’s funny and sad,” I said it in Arabic. And she thought I was swearing at her. I didn’t swear at her but she pushed me, and then I pushed her and she took out the gun and wanted to shoot me! But she didn’t — fortunately! (laughs) Fortunately she didn’t… Another time, soldiers forced me to take off all my clothes in a train station just because they wanted to mock me, and humiliate me. Yeah, things like that… But I was always alone not with any of my relatives like in the film.

How do you think cinema can help us comprehend situations that are so difficult to understand from the news alone?

In cinema there is poetry, there is beauty which doesn’t exist in the news. Cinema is a creative way to reflect the experience of ordinary human beings. So it is the creativity and the poetry that make it very different because it remains in the heart. And in the minds of people more than very dry news which usually is directed by a political agenda of the TV institutions are related to.

This is not your first time working with Ossama Bawardi and Philistine Films. Can you talk a bit about your collaboration with them and what makes them so unique as a production company for Palestinian cinema?

First of all Ossama and Philistine Films care about independent Palestinian cinema, independent Arab cinema and are supporting independent cinema — and I respect that and have a big appreciation for any production or any one who cares about independent cinema. Regardless of whether it’s Palestinian or American or from anywhere. I appreciate people who appreciate real cinema, independent cinema. Cinema which has something to say about reality about the world about humans. Not only for fun and entertainment like all this crap that we have been swallowing as teenagers. Films like Fast and Furious and all this crap. Big appreciation to Philistine Films in a time when we don’t have a country that can support us. So they, along with all independent producers in this place are a great thing, they are an alternative to something we don’t have — a country.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when of shooting The Present?

There was a scene that was very difficult to shoot. It was at the checkpoint in Bethlehem where hundreds upon hundreds of people were trying to go through this very narrow passage and it was very dense. I had to be there in the middle among the people just to shoot the film and I felt that we were making it more difficult for people to move, with the camera. So I was not convenient there. Even if the people didn’t care about the camera, and they kept saying “keep doing movies, but nothing changes.” It was difficult to be there, it was difficult to see this in reality because I’d never been there in this checkpoint and it was really tough. It was like 3 in the morning and all workers from Bethlehem and surroundings came through this checkpoint just to pass to their work. Very early in the morning and they come back very late in the evening — what a life they have! How a man like that who goes at 3 in the morning in this very dense checkpoint for one hour to get out of this checkpoint and then go to work at a very hard job — how he would have the energy to hug his child after this very long tiring day. It’s very sad.

And what would you like audiences to take away from the film?

To remember, to remember, to remember what they have seen. To remember what they have seen so when we ask for a boycott, they would understand why we asked for that.

What upcoming projects can we look forward to from you?

There is a film I’ve done in Turkey about the Syrian story, the Syrian Revolution and it’s gonna be out next year, it’s called Flash Drive. And I’ll be in a theater play in Berlin in the Pierre Boulez auditorium which is part of the Barenboim-Said Akademie, in September — I hope. Plus a one minute part in Mohamed Diab’s next film Amira and I shot an independent American film called Grasshopper about immigrants in America, directed by Bradley Bischoff.  

Finally, how would you describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you and has that definition changed from how you thought of yourself twenty years ago?

I don’t know how to answer this question. Because I don’t know how I described myself twenty years ago. I can say I have more experience and I have more awareness, political, social. I’m more active politically, I see the role of art, I see it maybe less deeply and more clearly. Things are more clear than before to me. But I’m not good at describing myself…

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