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The Horror of Powerlessness: 'Farha' Underscores the Palestinian Perspective

As the Israel-Palestine travesty continues to unfold, people around the world have begun to seek out stories from those afflicted by this decades-long struggle. One film that gives voice and emotional weight to the history of Palestinian conflict is 2021’s Farha.

Farha is a Jordanian-Palestinian historical drama. According to a Time article with writer/director Darin J. Salaam, the plot of the film is based on an amalgamation of true stories told orally to Salaam by family members, friends of the family, and other refugees and their descendants. Salaam herself is the child of Palestinian refugees. It is beautifully crafted in every sense, but it is also a deeply depressing movie that may strip audiences of hope – if not for the fact that hope lies in the film’s very existence.

Palestine, 1948. The Nakba – a mass displacement of Palestinians – is underway. The narrative centers on teenage protagonist Farha and her father, the village mayor. Early on, the violence still feels far away, something that is being talked about by adults but only indirectly affecting Farha's daily life. The first section of the film primarily focuses on her personal struggles as she pushes back on familial expectations for her to marry. She dreams of attending a school in a city and someday opening a school for girls in her village. With some reluctance, her father agrees to her plans and enrolls her in a school.

Before Farha can travel to the city, her life is thrown off course. While talking to her best friend Farida, a bomb goes off in their village. The two girls return home to find chaos as some people evacuate and others attempt to defend their homes. Farha refuses to leave with Farida and her family, instead going back to her father, who locks her in a room and promises to return when the fighting has stopped.

The latter half of the film takes place in this room. Farha waits and watches as militias come through her village. Her attempts to escape fail, forcing her to endure the violence outside through cracks and holes in the wall. The choice to center the perspective of the trapped and powerless Farha conveys the heart-wrenching emotions that the film’s real-life protagonist experienced during the Israeli occupation. 

Most of the violence is heard, not seen, but the realism of the characterization, dialogue and production design relays the full weight of the horror. This also prevents the movie from becoming tasteless or exploitative like certain propaganda films that feature one-dimensional characters and clearly distorted retellings of events. The Palestinians are not portrayed as perfect people living in a utopia before the occupation, and one of the Israeli soldiers struggles profusely with the order he is given, as opposed to being portrayed as taking pleasure in committing murder.

Throughout the film, we see Farha witnessing action rather than partaking in it. Many of the film's important conversations prior to the attack are filmed from a distance, the camera catching her reaction as she watches through windows. While she is somewhat comfortable and safe, she is powerless, even though these conversations are deciding her future education or marriage. When she does step out to advocate for herself, she is told off for being disrespectful. When her father permits her to pursue an education in the city, things briefly look hopeful before the violence renders her even more trapped and powerless than she was before.

I recommend Farha regardless of one’s knowledge of the Nakba. The film circumvents the need for heavy exposition by being told from the perspective of a confused teen. Those watching without context will experience the events more or less as she does. Those with greater knowledge will find the film's accuracy refreshing. It is not a story that will create experts on the region's history – and I do recommend additional research after viewing – but watching this film will help viewers empathize with Palestinians in a way that reading an article might not. Farha is reminiscent of Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film Fruitvale Station in the way that both capture tragic events (and show ordinary life that led up to them) in a grounded and realistic way, humanizing real people who might otherwise be seen as figures or statistics, if not ignored entirely. 

Writer/director Sallam understands the way that narrative film works, and it shows in her strong but unassuming creative choices. The structure of the script provides an effective flow, something that is especially difficult when the protagonist is alone for so many scenes. The fact that the film never becomes dull is also a testament to star Karam Taher’s talent. Without spoiling the ending, the lighting in the final scene subtly enriches the mood without feeling forced. There is no hamfisted acting or overdone soundtrack to take the audience out of what they are witnessing.

Last month, Sallam announced the creation of the production company Watermelon Pictures, whose main mission is funding films created by Palestinians and enabling them to have control over their own depictions and narratives. Their first film, the documentary Walled Off, is about an art museum near the West Bank whose illusive creator turned out to be Banksy. Walled Off is available for rent or sale on Vimeo and Apple TV.

Farha is currently available for streaming on Netflix US.



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