The Israeli backlash against Farha, the Palestinian film currently streaming on Netflix, suggests the movie illustrates the full scale and horror of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948.
There is no English word that fully captures the concept – “catastrophe” does not convey the reality of the massacres, ethnic cleansing and genocide to which Palestinians were subject – or, more tragically, its continuity 75 year later still, with ongoing displacement and expulsion. But where do you even begin when your movie is about the loss of the homeland?
The Jordanian-Swedish production Farha is no epic undertaking of the mass uprooting and displacement of Palestinians by the Zionist colonial project. Instead, it is a minimalist endeavour with haunting impact.
Director Darin Sallam utilises imagery that is heavy with symbolism to tell the real story of a 14-year-old Palestinian girl whose entire life was upended the day Zionist gangs attacked and ethnically cleansed her village as part of their successful scheme to grab Palestinian territory and create Israel in 1948.
Farha, as Sallam explained in interviews, is inspired by the true story of her mother’s friend who fled to Syria having survived the massacre during her childhood.
The film opens to the sound of Palestinian folklore with a song about figs that delivers a powerful statement not just on Palestinian history but also identity. Figs are one of the major types of fruit tree planted in Palestine since antiquity; evidence of the roots that connect modern indigenous Palestinians to their ancestors.
With its vibrant colours – the months leading to the Nakba happened to be during spring – the opening scene creates an idyllic setting with giggling teenage girls in traditional dress, playfully splashing each other with water from a natural fountain while picking fruit in a fig orchard. The titular Farha sits alone under a tree, absorbed in a novel which she reluctantly pulls herself away from as the time for kuttab, the children’s school for basic education, approaches. She gets up to pick a few figs herself, in a close-up scene exhibiting the attire she will not take off for the duration of the film.
In this postcard from historic Palestine, attention to detail recreates powerful visual, waxing nostalgic in a deeply moving way. Farha’s headpiece – a colourfully embroidered kerchief lined with gold coins known as shatwa, which is displayed in detail, is an assertive nod to Palestinian heritage. The energy and innocence attached to the film’s first minutes are also an introduction to Palestine before the Nakba, as romanticized by the collective imagination of both descendants of the 1948 generation and broader Arab memory.
Farha, Arabic for happiness, a philomath in the making who persuades her conservative father to enroll her in a proper school in the city, aptly symbolizes Palestine.
While sharing her big dreams with her visiting friend from the city, Farha is interrupted by the rattles of clunky British military trucks departing Palestine following the termination of their 18-year mandate, paving the way for the creation of Israel, on 15 May 1948.
Oblivious to the British government’s motives, Farha runs in the trail of departing trucks shouting “Goodbye!” in English while other kids join in yelling, “Get out of here and don’t come back!” in Arabic.
When she returns home, her father who is also the village Mukhtar is deep in conversation with his brother-in-law about the sorry state of Palestinians who lack arms or training or the means to protect their village from terrorist Zionist gangs. Despite the anxiety, there is little evidence for anticipating the scale of what’s to come. While the father wants his daughter to be married like the other village girls, he soon chooses modernity over tradition and registers Farha at school, which means she will live away from him in the city.
As the scene that follows pays tribute to traditional wedding festivities while Farha’s friend is getting married, Sallam presents viewers with moments of oral history: traditional Palestinian wedding songs in a henna ceremony of embroidered costumes and customs.
The climactic buildup begins as Farha savours the good news of her school registration while armed visitors from neighbouring villages show up at their doorstep to ask her father for help with the growing Zionist threat. She hears her father telling his guests that all Palestinian villages in the south and centre have been depopulated, their inhabitants turned to refugees. But as he turns down his disappointed visitors, he assures them that “the Arab forces” will come to the rescue.
Before she wakes up the following morning, a closeup of the school registration document for the academic year 1948-1949 on her bedside is an ominous signal to her soon-to-be-shattered dreams as she watches her father fortify their stone walls for protection. Farha’s last encounter with life in her sleepy idyllic village is on the tree swing with her city friend discussing their hopes for the future. The sound of nearby explosions end their conversation, as they run back home leaving behind their empty swings and the Palestine they knew.
It is here that the historic drama’s skillful cinematography replaces its beautifully crafted scenes of the before showing a romanticized picturesque Palestine to the after. But it does so without recreating the full scale of the horrors committed against the Palestinian people. For this it received some harsh critique from left-wing Lebanese columnists who accused the producers of accommodating Netflix’s politics by taming the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Palestinian dispossession.
But even if Farha is Nakba lite, who says that a searing take of the Palestinian catastrophe is best conveyed through blood splattered across the screen and inside the dark hollows of mass graves? The film artfully debunks long held Zionist myths that Palestine was a “land without a people for a people without a land”, suggesting that Palestinians never existed. For that alone it is a heroic undertaking.
In the chaos of terrorized, fleeing families, the sound of explosions, shelling, gunfire and warnings of Zionist gangs through loudspeakers, Farha’s father announces the fall of their village. Before leaving to join the fighters, he hides her in the storage room which he seals off from outside and promises to return.
Farha witnesses and experiences the Nakba over the following days trapped in the dark room, listening to and trying to make sense of the sounds of the ruthless bombardment of her village and its depopulation. She hears the voices of men, the sound of heavy boots from above, gunfire, footsteps, as she wavers between despair and crying spells to survival mode where she feeds on preserved white cheese and olives and manages to scoop up some rain water through a small ventilation hole. Farha also experiences the Nakba inside the storage room as a dehydrated prisoner languishing alone for days in a virtually empty village, until she witnesses, through the narrow gap under her door, the arrival of a refugee family with a woman in labour who gives birth in the courtyard.
The family of four including two girls is soon captured by Zionist soldiers whose commander orders their execution by gunfire after lining them up in the courtyard, while Farha watches through the cracks of her door. Before the squad leaves, their commander asks one of the soldiers to kill the baby “without wasting a bullet”, which the latter tries to do but struggles, despite the massacre he just took part in, to muster the brutality to crack the infant’s head with his shoes. So he leaves the baby, whose wails trigger Farha’s tears and vomiting.
Still trapped in her room, a traumatized and helpless Farha witnesses the infant’s slow death. It is only after she accidentally discovers guns hidden in sacks of stored lentils that she finally breaks open the door. When she walks out of the room, she sees the baby’s disfigured body covered with flies. Her once picturesque village is an apocalyptic ghost town and Farha is its only survivor. She returns to her tree swing and it is no longer spring.
The film ends as Farha drags her feet, with the heaviness of the years she’s aged during the days of her imprisonment, walking along the empty road resembling a wasteland into the chilling sunset.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.