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Farha was a classic indie film success story.
Darin J. Sallam’s low-budget drama, set in 1948, in the early days of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, premiered in Toronto last year before touring an A-list of international festivals with sold-out screenings in Rome, Busan, Gothenburg and Lyon. Critics loved the movie, praising the story of the feisty Farha, a 14-year-old girl living in a small Palestinian village who butts up against her society’s patriarchal restrictions on young women. When Israeli forces enter the town — part of a military action that saw more than 700,000 Palestinians displaced and scores of Palestinian towns and villages wiped off the map— Farha’s father locks her in a room for safety. From inside, she witnesses Israeli soldiers committing an atrocity against civilians.
The festival buzz around Farha led to a global Netflix deal via sales group Picture Tree International. And this year, as award season kicked off, Jordan picked the movie to represent the country in the 2023 Oscar race in the best international feature category.
Then came the backlash.
“It was November 29, 48 hours before the film was set to go out on Netflix [on Dec. 1],” Sallam recalls. She and her Farha producers Deema Azar and Ayah Jardaneh had just arrived in the U.S. to kick off Farha‘s Oscar campaign. “The minute we landed, we opened our phones and there was an explosion of emails, messages, missed calls, social media posts.”
Most were nasty. Some called Sallam a “terrorist Muslim,” a “Nazi” or worse. They accused her film of peddling lies about the Israeli military and Middle East history. An online petition was started, demanding Netflix drop the film. Another called on people to downgrade Farha on IMDB.
Several prominent Israelis joined in the pile on.
“Buh-bye Netflix! Supporting the false and anti-Israel film, ‘Farha,’ is unacceptable,” tweeted Jewish author and photographer Laura Ben-David, noting she was canceling her Netflix subscription in protest. On Instagram, Israeli model Nataly Dadon called on her followers to follow suit and cancel Netflix, arguing the purpose of Farha was to stoke hatred of the Jewish people.
“This was all before the film was on Netflix, so there was no way anyone could watch it yet,” says Sallam. “But maybe two hours after the IMDB petition when up we saw some 500, then 700, then thousands of people going online and giving the film 1 star. We were in shock.”
Then politicians got involved. Israel’s Culture Minister Chili Tropper accused the film of falsely equating the actions of Israeli soldiers in 1948 with that of the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Israel’s outgoing finance minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, condemned Netflix for deciding to stream the film, which he claimed was created under “a false pretense [to] incite against Israeli soldiers.” He suggested Israel withdraw public funding from the Al Saraya Theater in Jaffa if it went ahead with plans to screen the movie.
“Suddenly there were a lot of articles repeating the same things from the Israeli press and the media, it felt very much like an organized thing,” says producer Deema Azar. “The film had been out there for more than a year, touring the world, winning awards, screening everywhere. And then, just before the Netflix release, at the height of the Oscars’ campaign, this happens. It didn’t seem like a coincidence.”
The focus of the backlash is almost entirely on the one short scene in Farha in which Israeli soldiers are shown murdering a civilian family. But some have also objected to the structure of the film, saying showing a teenage girl in hiding deliberately evokes the story of Anne Frank and invites viewers to compare Israelis to the Nazis.
Sallam tells THR the entire film, including the violent scene, is based on stories she has heard her entire life, “from my mother, from my grandparents, from people who lived through the Nakba,” she says, using the term, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic, used by Palestinians to describe the events of 1948. “All of the stories that I heard from all people who witnessed this, my mother, my father, my grandparents, families, friends — I patched these stories together to create the world of Farha,” she says. “But all of them are real.”
Sallam, in fact, says the incident shown in the film is “very small compared to what happened historically.[It is] a small way for me to pay tribute to all of the people that died and all those who lost people back then.”
She notes that while there are many films “being made about what’s happening now in Palestine” there are no other movies set in 1948, “during this very specific event that was the source of so many issues, and not just in the Arab world.”
Exactly how many Palestinians died during the events of 1948 and how is a matter of furious historical debate. Israeli director Alon Schwarz faced a major backlash this year over his documentary Tantura, which uses eyewitness testimony and recorded confessions of Israeli soldiers at the time to document the alleged Nakba massacre of Palestinians in a coastal Mediterranean village.
“It is surreal to me that people could be denying the Nakba,” says Sallam, whose family fled Palestine for Jordon in 1948. “because denying the Nakba is denying my very existence.”
Netflix declined to comment on the film or the backlash, noting only in an email to THR that Farha was “an acquisition” and not a Netflix original.
“We haven’t reached out to Netflix but their response was very clear, because the film is on their platform, they screened it, which means a lot to us,” says Farha producer Ayah Jardaneh. “That meant a huge amount of support for us. We’re grateful for their bravery.”
If the goal of Farha’s opponents was to stop people from seeing the film, it appears to have backfired. The Dec. 1 screening at the Al Saraya Theater in Jaffa went ahead as planned. Since its Netflix bow, the film’s IMDB rating had rebounded — it’s currently at a stellar 8.6 out of 10.
“We are overwhelmed by the amount of support the film is receiving globally and are grateful to everyone who is doing their part to stand up against this attack and ensure the film is spoken about and seen,” the filmmakers said in a statement. “The film exists, we exist, and we will not be silenced.”
Farha is screening at the Park Avenue Screening Room in New York on Friday, Dec. 9, at 2 pm. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers.
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