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‘Farha’ film on Netflix brings Palestinian lens to a broad audience

The film tells the coming-of-age story of a Palestinian girl amid the violent tumult of 1948, the year Israel declared independence

Darin J. Sallam, center, the director and writer of the historical drama “Farha,” speaks with actors Karam Taher, left, and Ashraf Barhom on the set of the film. (TaleBox)

A film released on Netflix last month tells the coming-of-age story of a Palestinian girl amid the violent tumult of 1948 — the year Israel declared independence — and has drawn fierce criticism from some Israelis online and in government, who say the movie distorts history and should be boycotted along with the streaming service.

But the film, “Farha,” which was selected as Jordan’s official entry for the 95th Academy Awards, has also helped bring the Palestinian perspective to a wider audience in the United States and Europe, and could mean more visibility for Palestinian historical narratives in the West, experts say.

It vividly depicts the horrors Palestinians collectively refer to as the Nakba, or catastrophe, including a series of massacres historians say were carried out by Israeli forces — and the forced exodus of 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland.

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This history is hotly contested in Israel, which celebrates the era as one of triumph and independence and has at times censored documentation of the Nakba. But it is also a history that is rarely included in mainstream media in the United States, where leaders have long treated political and financial support for Israel as “sacrosanct.”

Because of this, the film’s presence on Netflix is “a dramatic achievement,” said Ilan Pappé, an Israeli historian and the author of “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.”

“Farha,” which first debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2021, is one of just a few cinematic representations of the Nakba, the last of which was Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah’s 2004 film adaptation of Elias Khoury’s novel “Bab al-Shams,” or “Gate of the Sun,” Pappé said.

“Netflix has put it on the stage in the North American context,” Hamid Dabashi, professor at Columbia University and editor of “Dreams of a Nation,” an archival compilation of Palestinian cinema, said of the Palestinian experience.

“The fact that the Palestinian point of view and Palestinian narrative, in addition to the Jewish narrative, is becoming part of the American mainstream — that’s the more exciting aspect of [Farha],” he said.

In the film, Farha is a 14-year-girl who wants to escape life in her traditional Palestinian village, get an education in the city and eventually become a teacher. But her ambitious plans are soon upended as tensions soar between Arabs and Jews in Mandatory Palestine, a British-controlled entity whose partition into two states was proposed by the United Nations in 1947.

Palestinians rejected the proposal and British forces, facing attacks by Jewish insurgents, withdrew, prompting Israel to declare independence.

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In the movie, the Haganah militia, a predecessor to the Israel Defense Forces, advances on Farha’s village. Her father locks her in a pantry in the family home to keep her safe — and from there, through a keyhole and a crack in the door, she witnesses the brutal events of the Nakba unfold.

“I wanted to make this because I wanted … the world to see Palestinians as humans,” the film’s Jordanian Palestinian director, Darin J. Sallam, said in an interview. Farha is “just a young girl. … She didn’t choose this. She lost her childhood in this room,” she said.

Sallam, 36, said the movie is based in part on a story relayed to her mother by a Palestinian girl named Radieh who survived the war after her father locked her in a room under similar circumstances. According to Sallam’s mother, who met Radieh after she fled to Syria, the girl’s father promised to come back for her but never did.

The film also weaves together different accounts of the Nakba that Sallam heard throughout her life, including from family members. Sallam’s father was an infant in Ramla, a historically Palestinian commercial center captured by Israel in 1948. His parents fled to Jordan after hearing reports of violence in nearby villages, Sallam said.

Farha “represents the Palestinians who had to move on and live with all the pain and losses,” she said, adding that she’s received messages from Palestinians who say they watched the film with their families, including elderly relatives.

“A girl said to me that her grandfather was very emotional, crying, and everybody started talking about the things that happened to them, like therapy. It’s like healing, and to me, this is amazing,” Sallam said.

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Today, there are nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees eligible for services under a U.N. mandate to assist those who originally fled the fighting. More than 5 million Palestinians also live in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, territories Israel seized in 1967. Israel formally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but, along with Egypt, still controls the enclave’s borders.

While the movie was well received among Palestinian audiences, in Israel, its release sparked outrage.

Ahead of its Dec. 1 debut on Netflix, “Farha” became a target of criticism from some Israeli officials and individuals on social media. Anonymous accounts bombarded the film’s page on IMDb, an online database of information on films and television series, with negative reviews. And some Israelis, including model Nataly Dadon, participated in an online campaign that included publicly announcing the cancellation of their Netflix subscriptions.

In Jaffa, a mixed Arab and Jewish city, demonstrators showed up outside Al Saraya Theater to protest the film’s showing. The day before its release, Israeli politician Avigdor Liberman, who was serving as finance minister at the time, called “Farha” an “inflammatory film full of lies against IDF soldiers” on Twitter.

“It’s crazy that Netflix has chosen to release a film whose whole purpose is to create false representations that incite against IDF soldiers,” he said on Twitter, adding that he had directed the Finance Ministry to cut funding for Al Saraya.

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Critics have homed in on a particular scene in “Farha” that they say wrongly depicts Haganah militants carrying out a massacre.

In it, Farha watches the fighters kill a family that has sought refuge in her home, at first sparing only a newborn infant. The unit’s commanding officer then orders a younger fighter to kill the infant but without using a gun, so as not to waste a bullet. The man, alone in the courtyard, is unable to do it and leaves it on the ground covered with a blanket.

But Israeli historians such as Pappé and Benny Morris, author of “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949,” say similar atrocities were documented throughout the Nakba.

According to Pappé, the scene resembles a massacre carried out by the newly formed Israel Defense Forces in October 1948 at Al-Dawayima, a Palestinian town near Hebron in the West Bank.

Pappé cited a letter Israeli soldier and journalist Shabtai Kaplan sent to Al Hamishmar newspaper following the massacre, a copy of which was more recently published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, that quotes another soldier who said he witnessed children “killed by smashing of their skulls with sticks.”

But according to Rashid Khalidi, editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies, “Farha” is “evidence that the humanization and normalization of Palestinians are beginning to take place in the mainstream.”

“The old will die, but the young will remember with a film like ‘Farha,’” said Sallam, the director. “I hope that the film lives forever, and I hope that the film is now in people’s hearts.”