Palestinian British filmmaker Farah Nabulsi’s previous short film, The Present, catapulted her to worldwide acclaim with its heartfelt story about parental love and sacrifice. Now with her feature film debut, which also stars Saleh Bakri, the filmmaker tackles bigger ideas with an expanded scope but with mixed results.
As emotional and mostly engrossing The Teacher is, the film’s shaky narrative, as well as some bizarre casting choices, hinders its ability to be completely believable. It’s not that the production credits nor on-screen performances are in anyway unreliable, but the script seems to lose track of what it wants to say, resorting at times to tired tropes, muddled dialogue and unnecessary plotlines that makes you all the more confused as to why such a harrowing story, based on true incidents, doesn’t achieve what it could have with a more focused script.
Still, this is an accessible film that will surely find enthusiastic audiences especially in the Middle East where the Palestinian struggle remains the most pressing political and humanitarian crisis to date. Set in Palestine and addressing the hardships Palestinians have to endure every single day, the film follows the story of an English teacher (Basem El Saleh, wonderfully played by Saleh Bakri) who firmly believes that his role far surpasses education – he wants to make a real difference in his students’ lives.
One particular student is Adam whose relationship with Basem grows far beyond the classroom. In Basem, Adam finds his missing father, mentor and role model. And when Adam witnesses a terrible tragedy, we grow to learn how much in common both men have in terms of having to reconcile with extremely grueling events they can’t seem to shake off.
Meanwhile, an American diplomat and his wife are attempting to push for the release of their kidnapped son, a soldier who has been held hostage for three years by a Palestinian resistance group. Israeli authorities are at first reluctant to strike a deal with Palestinians, given that such a move could very well encourage further abductions. Eventually, though, a deal is made: against the release of the abducted soldier, Israeli authorities would release over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Such a great imbalance of human life value is what drives the story, but the message is diluted with a completely unnecessary sub-plot in the form of British social worker (Imogen Poots) whose character is oddly out of place, both narratively and structurally. Furthermore, some of the casting choices deepen the sense that the film doesn’t quite find its footing, as it shifts from well-acted and well-written scenes to ones far less convincingly acted and narratively disappointing ones.
Basem and Adam’s relationship remains the true heart of the film and despite its flaws, the film manages to address repressed anger and generational trauma via its compelling characters who keep us interested to follow where the story leads. We know, from the get go, that there is truly no such thing as finding peace in an occupied territory, but as we see the two main leads fighting in their own way to stay alive, keep their sanity and find purpose amidst all the chaos, we are offered a window to a world where hope still remains possible in the eyes of those refuse to succumb to the status quo.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.