'Loyal to the story': Inside the mind of Farha’s Darin Sallam
Palestine is one of the world's great unmentionables.
It is a track stopper for those who dare to utter its name or worse, speak its truth. When it is mentioned throughout a variety of fields, from academia and activism to the arts and politics, Palestine is often the litmus test of both an individual’s longevity in a field and their freedom of expression in it.
"The spotlight has largely focused on Darin Sallam the 'politicised filmmaker' and dismissed Darin Sallam the storyteller"
Facing a medley of contention and celebration alike, the acclaimed Farha, a film based on a true Palestinian story during the Nakba, opened Pandora’s box that unleashed with it what many are programmed to avoid.
With its reception, ranging from Jordan’s official entry to the Oscars to calls for a boycott of being streamed on Netflix, the spotlight has largely focused on Darin Sallam the “politicised filmmaker” and dismissed Darin Sallam the storyteller.
“With all the viewings featured in festivals around the world, people quickly came to call Farha the cinematic ambassador of the Palestinian cause,” the 35-year-old commented on her debut feature film. “I’m deeply honoured and I cherish that because to many people it is a cinematic document for a wound that never closed. But for me, it is a story I’ve heard all my life and one I always knew I had to tell. All I've done is be loyal to the story.”
After her father locked her up in a room to keep her safe from the incoming attacks of Haganah forces, the Zionist paramilitary organisation during the 1948 mass displacement of Palestinians from their homeland, Radieh found her way out and trekked to Syria. There, she shared her tale with another young girl. Once that girl grew up and had a daughter of her own, she shared Radieh’s story with Darin.
"It is a story I’ve heard all my life and one I always knew I had to tell. All I've done is be loyal to the story”
Darin quickly agreed when asked if the political aspect of Farha pushed the audience away from the mastermind behind the movie.
Although she recalled the process of making Farha as one that led to “creating healing circles for intergenerational trauma,” Darin does not deny the space politics took in that process. She recalls audience members “jumping up after a viewing and shouting ‘I am Farha’” but when approaching possible sources of funding, she was told to “tone down the violence,” which Darin jokingly stopped in conversation to say “all the murder that happens in Farha is off-screen.”
One potential producer, Darin said, told her “a debut film on Palestine might end a career before it starts.”
Adamant to bring Farha to life, having first written the script in film school, Darin goes inwards for her creative process, a place without “outside influence” and a place where the only point of artistic comparison is herself, she said.
In many ways, Darin’s storytelling process is as tight as the overwhelming claustrophobia felt in the displacement of Palestinians.
Channeling Radieh’s reality wasn’t an overnight event. The story grew alongside Darin’s imagination and her own Palestinian heritage. Once it finished marinating, Darin birthed an emblematic story, mixing “a drop in the ocean” that is Radieh’s life with the pains of Palestine’s truth at large. Enter, Farha.
“I couldn’t do what people want and pack all the political history inside one feature,” she told The New Arab. “Farha is a movie beyond facts and history, it’s a coming-of-age story during the Catastrophe. It's a character movie with a focus on the human aspect. And more than ideas, people are most touched by people.”
Even to uninformed or unaware audiences, Darin witnessed Farha spark curiosity about the realities of Palestinian displacement as much as it sparked empathy with displaced Palestinians.
She remembers watching “Western audience members Googling Nakba” on their phones after a showing. To yield that effect, Darin knew symbology would reign supreme in her story, citing inspiration from methods famously found in Arab literature such as “ikhtizal and takyeef” – suggestive omissions and adapted vignettes.
“The name itself is the first symbol. Farha – joy – which is the joy stolen from the Palestinians, the many what ifs Palestinians still don’t have an answer to,” Darin explained to The New Arab. “It was an interactive story in a sense. It is a Nakba in a room, with the pressure of claustrophobia and the audience has to survive with Farha.”
Symbolism was Darin’s most intentional tool while shooting Farha, leaving a variety of bits and pieces that seem out of place yet remain crucial to the story.
Rife with examples, some of the most essential symbols include the birth and murder of a newborn off-screen, the weight of education in Palestinian society as Farha, a young female in the 1940s, is adamant to receive hers, and a four-second shot of a crack on the wall shaped like a Palestinian map.
Knowing the realities of the Nakba are passed on generationally, as she also pointed to more contemporary displacement and violence Palestine endures, Darin knows Palestinian art incites the collective psyche of her cinematic subjects as well.
Farha’s first scene, adapting legendary Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout’s Madonna of the Oranges as the shot’s backdrop, evokes the “disrupted then broken dreams” awaiting Farha.
The final scene, however, arguably carries the heaviest symbol in the film as Farha, like Radieh and over 700,000 refugees in 1948, trekked onward to Syria and surrounding territories.
Darin describes the moment as “the death of childhood while Farha carries a dagger, forced into knighthood toward the endless road ahead. Towards the unknown, the darkness, more claustrophobia and into the shattat, the diaspora.”
The many paradigms of fear and pain that come with injustice are central to Farha. In that centre, the agreed-upon omission of Palestine and Palestinian realities is similarly present. Darin’s storytelling confronts these phobias, knowing the fear fiercely exists and interacting with it is forcefully silenced. So what's there to do?
Darin Sallam, the writer and director of Farha, answers: “serve the character.”
“My mother told me Radieh was the first Palestinian she ever met, and that she was very proud,” she said. “Then, I added dreams, ambitions and my own rebellious self. I don’t like rules and I don’t follow a particular school of thought in film. I hate spoon-feeding the audience. Every scene should be a painting. It has soul, movement, and people. I want the audience to feel.”
Yousef H. Alshammari is a US-based Kuwaiti journalist and writer with a focus on international politics and culture.
Follow him on Twitter: @YousefWryRonin