Every Palestinian you meet is a living historical archive who carries with them the stories and trauma of a time before their own, from a place on which many can never step foot. The vast majority of Palestinian stories can be traced back to the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” in 1948, when around 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from more than 400 villages by the Zionist Irgun and Lehi (aka “Stern Gang”) militias.
In the past, these stories rarely made it past the barriers of their households. Even if they did find their way into books, documentaries or movies, they were unable to penetrate the thick walls of the Western media to find a prominent platform. This year, the walls have begun to crack. First- and second-generation Palestinians watched their clashing Western and Palestinian identities (and, for myself, the very small and niche Palestinian-Texan identity) acted out in the Netflix original limited series “Mo.” Now, older generations can see their own stories of exile reflected in the film “Farha.”
“Farha,” which is now streaming on Netflix, is the brainchild of Darin Sallam, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent. When Sallam was a young girl, her mother told her the story of a friend she met in Syria who had fled Palestine in 1948, when her entire village was sent into exile. This friend was forced to hide in a basement for days, hoping her father would return for her. It was there that she witnessed an entire family, including two children and a newborn baby, murdered outside her home. This story — of an ambitious 14-year-old girl transitioning from the daughter of the village mayor to an orphan refugee, all within the four walls of her basement — stuck with Sallam for years, and eventually became the film chosen by Jordan as its Best International Film Oscar entry for 2022. Yet, along with this acclaim, “Farha” has also become the target of a widespread slander campaign led by the Israeli government.
“It’s crazy that Netflix decided to stream a movie whose whole purpose is to create a false pretence and incite against Israeli soldiers,” read a statement issued by Israel’s finance minister, Avigdor Lieberman. In the same statement, Lieberman threatened to withdraw state funding from the Al Saraya Theater in Yaffa (or Jaffa) for screening the film.
On the day before, Israel’s Culture Minister Chili Tropper accused the film of making “false plots against IDF soldiers,” saying, “It describes the massacre of a family while comparing it to the behavior of the Nazis in the Holocaust, [which] is particularly outrageous.”
The ministers’ comments incited a public grassroots campaign calling on audiences to cancel their Netflix subscriptions and give the film poor ratings on IMDB, Google and Netflix.
In response, Palestinians led a defense campaign, spreading the word of the importance of “Farha” and advocating in order to boost the low reviews. Along with this call to action, Palestinians felt the need to provide proof of their history, sharing statistics about the Nakba and the stories of their own ancestors as well. They also highlighted the irony of having to pause from talking about the exiles happening today in East Jerusalem’s Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah districts in order to defend the validity of their ancestors’ exiles. The evidence of the Nakba isn’t hiding in documents; it can easily be seen in the current state of the refugee crisis and the ongoing displacement of Palestinian residents today.
In the end, Netflix made no comment and continued with the release of the film, which remains on the streaming platform. The ratings have proven favorable, with a 4.9/5 on Google and an 8.5/10 on IMDB, along with a spot in the top 100 Most Popular Movie rankings on the latter. Thousands of Palestinians have sat with one another in their living rooms, watching the portrayal of an event that many claim never happened.
If you were to ask any Palestinian about the film, their immediate responses would likely not be about the cinematography, the soundtrack or the set. Rather, the focus would probably be on the emotional response triggered by the depiction of a series of events that are difficult to remember, yet must not be forgotten. This is not to say the movie does not have the typical marks of production value. It does. Many parts of it feel detailed and intentional, whether they be the authenticity of the specific Palestinian thobe (a traditional embroidered dress handmade and worn by women) donned by the title character Farha and her friends, or the village dialect they speak. Driving this impression further is the fact the audience never leaves Farha’s presence (whether looking at her or looking out from her point of view), a stylistic decision that drills in Sallam’s point of sharing the singular experience of the Nakba.
The film’s reception is monumental in illustrating that Palestinians do not yet have the privilege of critiquing how our history is portrayed; we are still processing the emotions of just seeing ourselves on screen in a way that is subject to our own agency, rather than the decision-making of the Hollywood elite, who have been all-too-comfortable with portraying us in nasty stereotypes — when not ignoring our stories altogether.
I have never before had the chance to see what my grandmother’s girlhood looked like before the Israeli occupation began, or to hear the songs my elders still sing at weddings in our village. I’ve only ever seen black-and-white photos of barefoot Palestinians fleeing their homes with their belongings on their heads. I’ve never thought of what the Nakba sounded like — the shrieks of women and children amidst the sounds of explosions — or the conversations that took place between the family members who chose to stay and defend their homes and those who fled for safety.
Unlike the majority of Palestinians in the diaspora, none of my ancestors were displaced by the Nakba. My family’s village, Mazaraa al-Sharqiya, was one of the “lucky” ones located in the West Bank, which came under Jordanian rather than Israeli control after 1948. It still exists today, under Israeli military occupation. For those who do have grandmothers and grandfathers who were exiled, and have much more traumatic stories than Farha’s, it is an even heavier viewing. In fact, it is so heavy that “healing circles” have been organized online for those who need a space in which to talk about their thoughts and feelings after watching the film.
It is true that this heaviness comes from generational trauma. But it also stresses the importance of artistic development as a tool for documenting history. Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” showed the horrific treatment of slaves. Elie Wiesel’s “Night” detailed the extreme evils committed during the Holocaust. No matter the artistic critiques, these are pieces of art that make one feel history rather than just know it. And though the main purpose may be to educate other people on the importance of an experience or event, these books and films are also useful for those within the affected communities, as tools for healing and validation.