Farha: Growing old through the brutality of the Nakba
Jordanian writer-director Darin J. Sallam’s debut feature Farha is a tragic tale set in Palestine in 1948. A Jordan-Swedish-Saudi Arabian co-production, the film was world-premiered in the Discovery strand of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (9-18 September).
In detail, the story follows the titular lead character, a 14-year-old girl who lives in a small village, here played by non-professional actress Karam Taher.
In the first few scenes, we catch glimpses of her everyday life, similar to that of many girls her age. Different from others, however, Farha dreams of continuing her education and tries to convince her strict father (Ashraf Barhom) to study in a bigger town.
"Some may define Farha as a coming-of-age film, and so does the feature’s official logline. This is somewhat true, but the lead character’s growth process does not take the genre’s usual, (stereo)typical paths, as her transformation is fast, brutal and unavoidable"
Meanwhile, she shares her hopes and aspirations with her inseparable best friend, Farida (Tala Gammoh), who spends some weekends in the village. Farida has already enrolled in the school Farha wishes to attend, and she would be very happy to study together with her best friend.
This may seem a good premise for a tale of empowerment, but we must not forget that the historical context is that of the Nakba, and we can already perceive the presence of a looming threat. The turning point is represented by a scene coming after the first 20 minutes.
Farha and Farida are chatting while sitting on a swing, somewhere not too far from the village. Farha tells Farida that she has somehow persuaded the father to let her continue her studies, and discloses that, one day, she will become a teacher and come back to the village to open her own all-girls school. The initially idyllic set-up is suddenly turned upside down by a brutal bombing. The two leave the swing and run towards the village.
It’s a powerful scene boasting a simple staging but displaying a strong metaphorical value, capable of summarising the film’s core themes. The swing represents the girls’ childhood, their conversation focuses on their future wishes and the bombs bring them back to reality, forcing them to grow old in the blink of an eye.
Amidst the village’s siege, the father fears for his daughter’s safety and decides to lock her up in a concealed, small food storage space by the house, promising to return as soon as possible. Farha will end up spending the next few days in that tight, dark space, peeking at the outside world through a small hole in the wall and a few cracks in the entrance door. Sallam depicts the girl’s emotional turmoil with great realism, made of terror, anxiety, and paranoia.
Despite a few slowdowns in the first part of her “segregation” – this could be justified by the clear “stalemate” dynamic in which she is trapped, but still risks disengaging the viewers – the next turning point brings the narrative to a deeper, more intense level. A family of four stops in the adjacent courtyard, just a few metres away from the food storage. The siege has seemingly stopped and the woman is screaming in labour. From that moment on, the girl’s journey will continue as she will witness unimaginable pain.
Some may define Farha as a coming-of-age film, and so does the feature’s official logline. This is somewhat true, but the lead character’s growth process does not take the genre’s usual, (stereo)typical paths, as her transformation is fast, brutal and unavoidable.
Moreover, there is minimal interaction with the outer world, and she grows old by simply observing what is happening. Therefore, Sallam’s work may be described more as a drama telling how violence and trauma can devastate a girl’s life and force her to leave her childhood behind. In this sense, the ending loosely mirrors the swing’s previous scene, depicting a Farha who has irremediably transformed into an adult woman.
Interestingly, the ending credits reveal that the film is based on real events and Farha never found out about her father’s fate. She made it to Syria, where she shared her story, “keeping it alive for generations to come.”
On the whole, Sallam gifts the viewers with a solid first feature, where one can appreciate its balanced acting performances (especially that of the talented young lead), its simple but functional production design (courtesy of Nasser Zoubi) and the excellent cinematography by Rachelle Aoun (Sophie Boutros’ Solitaire, Lamia Joreige’s And the Living is Easy). Here, Aoun manages to immerse the spectator into Farha’s dread and to build up a fair amount of tension, despite the obvious limitation of shooting most of the scenes in the girl’s hideout, and through her POV.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland.
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni