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Why the Director of Netflix’s Farha Depicted the Murder of a Palestinian Family

10 minute read

A lot has happened since Jordanian director Darin Sallam’s debut feature film Farha had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year: Jordan selected the movie as its 2023 Oscars entry, it secured best youth film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, and it reached a much larger audience when it arrived on Netflix last week.

Set in an unnamed Palestinian village, Farha tells the true story of a 14-year-old girl during the creation of Israel in 1948—an event Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe”—in which more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes.

The movie’s namesake character, Farha, is a boisterous girl who wants to enroll in school despite traditional gender norms. But when nascent Israeli forces overrun her village, Farha’s father locks her in a pantry to keep her safe. There, she witnesses the murder of a Palestinian family and their newborn baby through a small opening in the wall.

This rare onscreen depiction of Israeli violence against Palestinians has been condemned by Israeli officials. Israel’s outgoing finance minister, Avigdor Lieberman, issued a statement on the movie, saying: “It’s crazy that Netflix decided to stream a movie whose whole purpose is to create a false pretense and incite against Israeli soldiers.” Lieberman added that he ordered the ministry to deny funding to Al Saraya theater in Jaffa for screening the movie.

Sallam talks to TIME about the controversy around Farha and what the movie means for her.

TIME: Farha is based on a real girl, how did you find her story and how did it affect you?

Sallam: I always say the story found me. There was a girl named Radieh who lived in Palestine in 1948, and she was locked in a room by her father to protect her from Israel’s invasion at that time. Radieh survived and walked to Syria where she shared her story with another girl. That other girl grew up, had a daughter of her own, and shared Radieh’s story with her own daughter—who happened to be me.

Because I’m claustrophobic, I kept thinking about what happened to Radieh. I felt for her. I related to her. Like every Jordanian of Palestinian descent, or any Arab, we grow up listening to stories about Palestine, of the Nakba. All these stories that I heard from my grandparents, families of friends, patched together to create the character of Farha, a name that means joy in Arabic. I chose the name because of how they talked about their life before the Nakba—to me it was life before their joy was stolen.

Read More: How the Idea of Return Has Shaped the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for 70 Years

Have you managed to track down Radieh?

I tried to find her so she could watch the film. Unfortunately, I couldn’t because her family moved from where they used to live after the war in Syria began. But during one Q&A session for Farha, somebody from the audience, an old man, stood up and said, “This is the story of my mother.” I thought he was Radieh’s son. Then he said, “No, but my mother went through something very similar.” So I felt that maybe it’s not only Radieh, it’s every Palestinian who sees themself in this story.

Why did you decide to turn Radieh’s story into a film?

As a filmmaker, I can’t make any film unless I feel the urge to share the story—especially if the story haunts me, as it did with Farha. There are no movies about this specific time in Palestine. It’s missing in cinema. Many people told me, “why don’t you make it about another country?” And I’ve always said it’s a universal and timeless story that could happen anywhere, anytime. I’m not a politician, but I decided to stay loyal to this story, as if I’m responsible for the voice of this young girl.

It’s also a challenge for me, as a film writer and director, to have most of the film happening in a confined space.

Can you tell me more about the Nakba and the events that led up to it?

The Nakba is part of who we are and our identity as Palestinians. Again, I’m not a politician. I’m an artist. But what I can say is that my grandparents were forced into exile in 1948; my father was six months old then. They heard about a massacre near them so they took their stuff and left. They were scared for their lives. My grandparents thought they would be back in a few days when things calmed down but it didn’t get any better so they arrived in Jordan. This happened in many other villages.

How did you research this time period and get as close as you could to the true events?

As a Jordanian with Palestinian roots, you grow up listening to these stories but we had to do a lot of research just to make sure. I read many books like Ilan Pappé’s work on the ethnic cleansing of Palestine that I really recommend everyone to read. I heard a lot of oral histories from people that witnessed this too. A lot of the research process was painful. You see people who witnessed something 70 years ago and they’re still traumatized. They’re still waiting to visit their houses and their farms. I felt heavy-hearted because of how they miss their simple lives.

How difficult was it to get a film about the Nakba made, let alone aired on Netflix?

It’s very challenging to make a film in general, and in the Middle East, it’s more difficult because securing funding is even tougher. And when you talk about Palestine, it becomes more and more challenging because it’s a topic that is avoided. With this Palestinian side of the narrative, many don’t want to hear it. It was very hard to get funding for the film but we believed that the right time would never come. We had to make the right circumstances for it to happen.

Why did you include the murder of a Palestinian family in Farha and how did you deal with it sensitively?

The reason I’m so shocked by the backlash is because I didn’t show anything. Compared to what happened during the massacres, this was a small event. I don’t know why some Israeli officials are very upset about this scene. It’s blurry and out of focus because I always said it’s about this girl’s journey. I don’t want to speak about Farha as a number. I want to talk about her as a child who had dreams. She lost her friend, her father, her house, her life. I don’t want to talk about war but it’s there as part of her journey. It’s about her feelings on what she’s witnessing.

Read More: How Online Activism and the Racial Reckoning in the U.S. Have Helped Drive a Groundswell of Support for Palestinians

The film has received a lot of backlash in Israel. To what extent did you expect this?

I didn’t expect this much backlash because the film has been out for a while, so why now? The timing was weird to me. I feel it is intended to harm the Oscars campaign so I really hope it doesn’t affect this negatively. We really want to focus on the film being seen, so yeah, it’s a shock. I understand the truth hurts but it’s our right to speak up and share our identity and what happened to us.

Some Israeli officials are saying that the movie creates a false narrative. What’s your response to that?

Denying the Nakba is like denying who I am and that I exist. It’s very offensive to deny a tragedy that my grandparents and my father went through and witnessed, and to make fun of it in the attacks that I’m receiving. I’m getting hateful, racist messages about who I am, where I come from, and about how I dress. This is not acceptable. They can keep talking; I can’t do anything about it but it’s inhumane.

You’ve said that there’s been a smear campaign targeting the movie’s IMDB rating. Can you tell us more?

There was an attack, and when I say attack, I mean from everywhere—the Israeli media, individuals, and ministers. They told people to go and rate the film before it was on Netflix. Suddenly, within hours on Dec. 1 there was a huge amount of people voting against the film and giving it a zero-star, writing similar comments that it’s a “big lie.” It was an organized campaign because the film wasn’t even out on Netflix at that point, so how could they rate it? Feeling that you, as an artist, are being attacked for your work is ugly. Thankfully, a journalist spoke about this and people started checking out the film, spreading the word, and leaving honest reviews.

How has Netflix been amid the backlash?

Actually, we never even reached out to Netflix after the backlash. They just did the right thing and proceeded to put the film on their platform and, to me, this is real bravery and the support we needed. We have new respect for them.

Has the film been screened in Israel or the Palestinian territories?

It screened in Palestine, in Ramallah, Gaza, and Rafah. A day before the film’s release on Netflix, it was screened in a theater in Jaffa and this is where the Israeli government and the media went crazy and started attacking the film, and threatening to cut the theater’s funding for screening it.

Have you had feedback on the film from Palestinians?

Not just Palestinians. The overwhelming amount of beautiful messages that we receive about the film are from all over the world. Some people imagined their daughter in Farha’s place. To me this is what the film is about—it’s a coming of age film about friendship, love, and liberation in the face of loss.

How does it feel to hear there’s Oscar buzz for Farha?

I really hope that the film doesn’t face any injustice. I hope that the film is seen and gets a fair chance at the Oscars. I always say that we don’t live forever but films do. Now the film is in people’s hearts and minds. I hope that it lives forever or generations to come.

This interview has been edited for clarity and style.

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Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com