Basem El-Saleh (Saleh Bakri) is a middle-aged, devoted English teacher working for a secondary school in the rural West Bank. He is very fond of the intelligent Adam (Muhammad Abed Elrahman) and his brother. He gives his two cherished teenage students and their widowed mother emotional and logistical support as the Israeli army hands the family an eviction order. The two young males despondent and overcome with wrath s a bulldozer tears down their house. The brother gets killed by the Israeli settler that stole their land, after he attempts to stop the illegal occupier from setting their olive trees on fire. Basem is determined to prevent the bright young man from having an outburst of emotions, thereby seeking justice with his own hands. Such actions could have custodial or even fatal consequences, and leave his mother without either one of her sons.
But the seemingly quiet and peace-loving teacher has a secret of his own. He harbours a kidnapped Israeli soldier named Nathaniel in his basement in the hope to exchange the man for more than 1,000 Palestinian political prisoners. Nathaniel’s parents are left desperately scrambling for their child, with the highest level of the country’s security forces firmly on his side. The Israeli army repeatedly storms into Basem’s semi-peaceful little village in the hope to locate the precious hostage. All actions are witnessed by a British activist Lisa (Imogen Poots), a beautiful and caring Caucasian blonde. Rather predictably, romance blossoms with the equally good-looking Basem (Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, who you may recognise from Maryam Touzani’s last year’s The Blue Caftan, has the Michael Fassbenrder looks; two scenes in which he appears half-naked seem to emphasise this).
In yet another further plot, Adam fights for justice for his brother in an Israeli court, with the support of an Israeli sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The double standards of Israeli justice are exposed as the trial of the murderous Israeli settler is contrasted against the trial of Basem’s Palestinian son (we never see his only child, and his “crime” and fate are only revealed later in the movie). While entirely comprehensible, there are just way too many narrative threads, all of them highly emotionally and/or politically charged. Instead of complementing one another, they compete instead.
There are other issues that prevent this well-intentioned movie from reaching its full dramatic potential. Lisa’s character feels redundant, and the romance has little chemistry. She seems like an awkward justification for BFI funding (all British co-productions have to pass a strict Britishness test, which often mandates the presence of British characters). The crying and wailing of countless characters is just too extensive; it works for a little while then it becomes a little contrived. Plus the story slips into political didacticism (given the film title, that’s perhaps intentional?). The director’s justifiable antipathy of the illegal occupiers of Palestine is clear on every frame of the movie. What you see is the familiar battle of good Palestinians versus evil Israelis, with entirely flat characters. There are at two small “nice” Israelis characters for balance: the lawyer and a soldier. Not enough for a more profound reflexive and humanistic study of the conflict. Instead, The Teacher is an activist drama.
Despite its preachy tone (or perhaps precisely because of it), The Teacher is successful at conveying various urgent messages, and it does ultimately engage viewers for nearly two hours. This is a movie with its heart at the right place, even if at times the hand hits the wrong buttons. The biggest takeaway is that anger is a legitimate reaction. Basem describes the first time she saw “fury” in this mother’s eyes when she was attacked and mortified by the illegal occupiers. This sentiment is replicated in Adam’s own actions to vindicate his brother. It is only natural that gross injustice and impunity should lead to extreme indignation and even radical measures. Violent resistance doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Another perhaps smaller lesson is that the fears of failed parenthood are universal, and they can have a destructive impact on Palestinians and Israelis alike. The problem is that the suffering of an Israeli parent is worth a lot more sympathy than the suffering of a Palestinian one.
The Teacher is in the Official Competition of the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year at the Toronto International Film Festival. Farah Nabulsi’s short film The Present (2020) was nominated for an Academy Award. Given its highly politically charged content, and the United States’ uncritical support of Israeli aggression, it is virtually impossible that The Teacher will received an Oscar nod