Striking a Chord: “Farha” by Darin Sallam

Darin Sallam's Farha is the harrowing story of the displacement of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948.

Striking a Chord: “Farha” by Darin Sallam
Interview: Dareen Abughaida | Words: Menna Shanab

“I’m not a politician. I’m an artist. It’s that simple. This is my language. This is how I express myself. I decided that I wanted to be loyal to the events of the Nakba. I want to talk emotions, because when you hear or read things, you can easily forget them, but when you feel things, they stay forever,” says Darin Sallam, writer and director of internationally acclaimed film Farha, on why she chose to tap into the human element of tragedy to tell the story of the 1948 catastrophe. In her debut film, Sallam humanises the Nakba with a deft touch and storytelling that penetrates our psyches, narrating the harrowing events and cataclysmic loss through the eyes of a 14-year-old-girl. 

As a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, Sallam grew up hearing stories of a Palestine from before the Nakba, one brimming with life, music, art, people, traditions and heritage: the lingering beauty that can, at times, supersede memories of dispossession. Patching these stories together – heard from her grandparents and family friends – Sallam created the character of Farha, a name that means “joy” in Arabic.

“I chose the name Farha because it represents the things I’ve heard people say about Palestine before 1948: the way they talked about it and missed it, how emotional and joyful they became and how they were waiting to go back. How the eyes of my grandparents and everyone who witnessed and knew Palestine before the Nakba had this glimmer in them, the ‘farha’ or the joy that was stolen from them.”

A dauntless and carefully-knit story, Farha is a visual retelling of the oral histories Palestinians have told for generations. It is a mental recording of a final shared laugh, a faint taste of freedom before the void of exile.

Darin Sallam x Gucci

Darin Sallam’s resonant directorial voice puts forward a compelling perspective of the historical event, redirecting the global gaze to a cultural legacy that has been shunned, censored and invalidated for too long. “They always said that it was a land without people for people without a land. I want to show that it was a land with people that had lives, heritage, culture, traditions, sad moments and happy moments. They had lives that they just want back, that they miss,” she says.

Farha was born out of these transgenerational memories of the Palestinian plight. When the Jordanian filmmaker was a child, she was told the true story of Radieh, a young Palestinian girl who watched from a locked cellar as catastrophe ravaged her village in 1948. “Her father locked her up in a room to protect her life. She survived the storm, made it to Syria and shared the story with my mother. My mother in turn shared the story with me and it stayed with me, because I was claustrophobic. I kept thinking about how she felt inside this room. I related to her. She grew with me. It’s like we grew up together.”

The story had travelled over miles, decades and generations to find her. Sallam felt it was her responsibility to share Radieh’s – or Farha’s – story as a microcosm of her elders’ experiences, whose futures were ripped from beneath their feet with no explanation in 1948. “I know that I can’t make a film unless I have the urge to share a story and this story speaks to me. It touches my heart. The story stayed with me all these years and now it’s my responsibility. I feel I know this girl and I want to share her story with the world. I always felt that I wanted to share the story, it was just about timing.”

Beyond being a tale of a genocide and expulsion, Farha is a reminder of the daily injustices faced by Palestinians, and the ongoing effects of the Nakba on their lives. “This event, it is the source. It’s the reason why more than seven million Palestinians are refugees today. It’s avoided, ignored and overlooked in cinema. This side of the narrative was hidden for years in the media. I feel it’s about time that we speak up and our voices are heard,” says Sallam.

Although the events of 1948 are now covered in myriad books, poems and documentaries, the Nakba is seldom shown in the form of fictionalised cinema. Sallam takes the opportunity to give us a glimpse into the splendour of Palestine before the Nakba, incorporating beautiful portrayals of bountiful fig harvests and scenes from a traditional party – all this serves to showcase the beauty of Palestine’s cultural legacy. 

Among this cultural abundance, Darin Sallam contextualises the dreams and aspirations of Farha, a teenage girl chafing against gendered traditions in a male-dominated society. “I showed the Nakba, but from the eyes of a 14 year old girl. This is something new. She’s a human being. She’s a child. She’s putting all the losses, burdens and pain on her small shoulders and [is] forced to move on towards the unknown. The audience is always emotional because of this.”

Darin Sallam x Bottega Veneta

In Sallam’s portrayal, the horrors of the Nakba are harrowingly depicted from the unique perspective of teenage Farha, trapped inside a single room, watching catastrophe consume her village. The impact of senseless murder and forced expulsions is presented from a private lens as we watch Farha go for days without human contact and just two views of the outside world: a slit in the cellar door and a tiny hole in the wall. 

To capture this seminal moment in Palestinian history from such a restricted perspective was a daring directorial decision. The camera spends more than 50 minutes inside the cellar with her. Farha doesn’t do much but wait. However, by watching her over the span of a few days, we bear witness to a devastating transformation. 

“Many people said, ‘We imagined it’s our daughter.’ People felt the character and lived her journey, that was what I wanted to achieve”, says Sallam. “I always wanted to make a universal and timeless story.”

The film’s shooting  was emotional because many of the extras were Palestinian refugees from the Jerash camp in Jordan; they are the living and breathing embodiment of the catastrophe. There were moments filming had to stop because the extras were crying, but there was also something cathartic about it. “We had to talk. It’s like therapy. They’re reliving what their families went through,” said Sallam.

Darin Sallam

Bringing the movie to life was a long and arduous journey for Sallam, who began writing Farha in 2016. She was met with pushback for developing the film and was discouraged from pursuing it. Nevertheless, it was shot in Jordan in 2019, and debuted in 2021 to critical acclaim. Following its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, the film has risen in popularity with its release on Netflix, the streaming service giving the film a wider audience to present its compelling and deeply intimate story to, a story that resonates with Palestinians as the impact of the Nakba continues to be felt decades on. It has been selected as Jordan’s 2023 Oscars entry, as well as winning a slew of awards including Best Youth Feature Film Award at the 15th Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA).

Darin Sallam

Farha is not a portrayal of an impersonal, historical event. Instead, it depicts a very personal, real-life experience that adds to the Palestinian collective memory. The Palestinian identity is sustained by the act of remembering the pain inflicted upon the Palestinians and is maintained by the passing down of stories among generations, a tradition Darin Sallam is upholding with Farha. “I wish for the film to live because I always say that we die, but films live. The occupation depended on the older generation dying out and the young ones forgetting. So what I really hope is that the young will continue to remember with a film like this.”

Darin Sallam

Stream Farha by Darin Sallam on Netflix now.

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Production Credits

Photography: Amina Zaher

Creative Direction and Styling: Saif Hidayah 

Makeup and Hair: Laura Madar

Executive Producer: Lina Merhy

Styling Assistant: Nujoud Oweis

Production Assistant: Omaia Jallad