Oscar-nominated director tells how she learned to make movies from YouTube

Farah Nabulsi had no formal training in film-making. Yet, fresh from scooping a Bafta and in the running for an Academy Award tomorrow night for Palestine-set movie The Present, the mother-of-five proves you can reinvent yourself, writes Liz Hoggard

Stockbroker-turned-film-maker Farah Nabulsi
Stockbroker-turned-film-maker Farah Nabulsi Stockbroker-turned-film-maker Farah Nabulsi

WHEN 42-year-old stockbroker-turned-film-maker Farah Nabulsi was waiting to hear if she’d been nominated for an Oscar last month, she had to beg her three teenage sons to join her on the sofa at their London home.

She needed moral support, she jokes. "I said: 'Come and sit with me. If it’s not there, I’ll need a hug. And if it is there, I’ll need a hug.'"

It’s not that her boys didn’t care. They’re just rather accustomed to their mother – an untrained, first-time director – winning things.

Her short film The Present, about a Palestinian man and his daughter who set out to buy an anniversary gift for his wife – a simple task that proves fraught due to the Israeli checkpoints they must pass through – has already won 25 jury and audience awards at film festivals around the world. Most recently it won the Bafta for Best British Short Film.

Unsurprisingly, the boys were a little blasé. But they certainly woke up when their mother started dancing on the coffee table as her Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Film was announced.

"Don’t get me wrong, they’re happy for me," she says. "They’ve been with me every step of the journey. But they’re like…" she imitates the bored tones of a schoolboy: "Oh, Mum’s excited again."

Whether she wins or not tomorrow night, she’s making history. A mother to five children (she has two stepdaughters, from her husband’s first marriage), she is female and Muslim.

Dressed in jeans and a linen shirt, she says many people don’t guess her heritage.

"I may not fit the stereotype of what people think a female Arab Muslim looks like, but actually in the Levant area [the countries along the eastern Mediterranean shores] we can be quite fair."

Her father, a Palestinian born in Egypt, came to the UK to study for a PhD in civil engineering. Her mother arrived when her family left Palestine following the Arab-Israeli war in 1967.

So Nabulsi herself grew up in London and worked in equity sales for JP Morgan Chase in the City, London's central financial district, before having her sons. Most days she’d be at her desk at 6.30am, and she often stayed late into the evening for the US market. She’d always had a mathematical brain, she recalls, but also loved films.

Without any formal training, she taught herself to direct by buying film books and watching YouTube masterclasses with famous directors. She raised funds (and contributed some personally as well) to make The Present, which she co-wrote and directed.

"I always quote the late director Stanley Kubrick, who said: 'The best education in film is to make one,' and that’s what I did. Sometimes jumping into the deep end is the best way," she smiles.

It is certainly a world away from the City, where she met her husband of 18 years.

"He was a prospective client. But once we’d met and got to know each other it turned out his father and my grandfather were best friends in Palestine 45 years previously."

After the birth of her first son in 2004 she left banking and, in 2013, she went back to Palestine for the first time in 25 years. She had visited her grandparents there as a child.

"My parents weren’t about the politics at all. But they never let me forget the roots of where they were from, and so essentially where I was from. I never had this identity crisis – I was British and Palestinian,’ she says.

But when she took her children to her parents’ homeland, aged 34, it was a shock.

"In many ways I visited Palestine for the first time as an adult with almost a Western lens. Like a tourist. I arrived in my blood country all starry-eyed, and was perhaps more overwhelmed and appalled by the reality than an Arab from elsewhere in the region would have been."

She realised that with one foot in the West, but with her own Arab heritage, she could bring a new perspective to the situation.

In 2015 she founded a production company to make short films.

"Even though I had never worked in the film industry and had no formal film education, I felt compelled to tell these human stories I’d come across and express myself creatively."

Short films are easier and quicker to watch, and more likely to be shared online, she explains. At first she wrote the scripts and commissioned directors to make them, funding the firm herself.

Her 2016 short, Today They Took My Son, tells the story of a woman whose 10-year-old son is taken by the Israeli army when he throws a stone at soldiers demolishing a Palestinian home. It was selected for the Edinburgh Short Film Festival and screened at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

But Nabulsi was beginning to realise she needed to direct herself.

"It was a moment of impostor syndrome," she laughs. "Can I direct? Don’t you need to have gone to film school? Don’t you need to know more technically?"

When she co-wrote The Present with Palestinian-American poet and film-maker Hind Shoufani, she could visualise every shot in her mind’s eye.

"I could see the actor I wanted, and I could see the little girl in the red jacket. It was all there. Apparently that’s what a director needs, to have that very vivid visual imagination – to imagine this world that doesn’t exist yet."

The opening scenes of The Present were shot, documentary-style, at Bethlehem’s infamous Checkpoint 300, where thousands of Palestinians have to queue to pass through every morning. The father in the film is played by Israeli-based Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, a big star in the Arab film world.

A young untrained actress, Maryam Kanj, plays his daughter Yasmine, who takes matters into her own hands as her father reaches breaking point.

"I wanted to offer something more hopeful at the end. A suggestion that maybe it’s the youth, and maybe it’s female youth, who are coming out wiser and stronger and taking agency," says Nabulsi.

She is touched by how audiences around the world have empathised with the family in The Present. But then we, too, have experienced personal frustrations in the past year.

"There’s this zeitgeist with everyone having their movements restricted, travel banned and curfews," she says.

Sadly this meant Nabulsi had to attend film festivals by Zoom, waving at her fellow nominees from the couch.

But in the meantime she’s been developing her first full-length feature film, The Teacher, once again starring Saleh Bakri.

While the Baftas took place on Zoom, she will attend the Oscars in person in Los Angeles tomorrow night. After "a year of track pants and pyjamas", she’s looking forward to getting dressed up for the occasion.

But she’s determined not to build up her Oscar hopes. Expectation is the root of all heartache, she says.

She certainly seems at home with her new career, though. When recently asked how she coped in the male-dominated film industry, she replied: "Listen, if you’ve been in a bank dealing with the male of the species then: film-making? Bring it on. I can handle that."

And does she think that her experiences as a mother gave her life skills she can use as a director, too?

"A hundred per cent," she says. "What I found is many people in the arts are so phenomenally creative they end up in the dreaming room and sometimes they don’t come out of it. When it comes to the practical side of things, the logistics and budgets, they can struggle."

But she also wants to stress that there can be second acts in the lives of midlife women.

"As George Bernard Shaw says: 'Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.' I love that quote. Just decide who you want to be."

The Present is on Netflix. The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony takes place on Sunday April 25 (starting midnight April 26 UK/Irish time).

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