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15th February 2023

Farha: Palestinian history through the female gaze

Farha portrays the impact of genocidal trauma on a fourteen-year-old Palestinian girl
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Farha: Palestinian history through the female gaze
Photo: TaleBox/Netflix

Inspired by true events, Farha is a coming-of-age story which takes place in Palestine in 1948 – the year Israel declared independence. Darin J. Sallam’s debut feature film depicts the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, known as the Nakba in Arabic, by Zionist military forces through the perspective of 14-year-old Farha (Karam Taher).

Farha became the subject of media attention when Israeli officials condemned the film as “creating a false narrative” through “lies and libels.” I believe this viewpoint indicates an unwillingness to confront the oppression of Palestinians that Israel’s creation was, and continues to be, built on. The film is based on the real-life experience of a Palestinian girl named Radieh, who survived the conflict and found refuge in Syria. Here, she shared her story with Sallam’s mother – who passed it on to Sallam. Palestinian people have a right to tell their stories and process their trauma through art.

May 15, 2023 will mark 75 years of the Nakba, a time during which approximately 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes. 78% of historic Palestine was captured as Israel. The remaining 22% was divided into the currently occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip. Over 400 Palestinian villages were depopulated, demolished, and geographically erased – with the Palestinian right of return denied

Data compiled by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) shows that, between 2009 and 2022, at least 8,413 Palestinian-owned buildings were destroyed by Israeli forces, uprooting at least 12,491 people. For Palestinians, the Nakba is not a historical event – it is a ceaseless process of displacement.

The film’s colour palette is initially imbued with warm, vivid tones. A fairytale-esque sequence shows Farha’s friends splashing one another with water by a waterfall while Farha reads peacefully next to them, before getting up and picking some figs from a nearby tree. Shortly afterwards, an establishing shot shows the sun shining down through the trees onto Farha and her best friend Farida, who are relaxing on some homemade swings. Farha’s community is dressed in bright colours, laughing and clapping during a marriage scene. 

The cinematography transitions as signs of conflict become apparent. Though urged to escape with Farida and her family amid the chaos of the attack on their village, Farha decides to remain with her father, Abu Farha. Farha’s village becomes shrouded in dust. Darkness pervades the screen when Abu Farha locks her in their outdoor pantry for safekeeping – making a shaky promise that he will return. The film’s focus narrows, with the story establishing itself as a claustrophobic microcosm of a wider tragedy.

A significant portion of the film’s runtime is spent with Farha in the narrow confines of the dimly lit pantry. The film’s pacing is slow, reflecting reality by emulating real-time. Tension and uncertainty are heightened, prompting the audience to grasp the gravity of Farha’s predicament. The pantry’s scant preserves force Farha to subsist on a diet of potatoes and pickle juice. A tiny hole in the wall offers the only glimpse of the outside world. 

Sallam judiciously relies on sound to convey the state of Farha’s locality. Bullets are rife, and cries of distress are frequent, evoking an imminent sense of danger. Farha herself is silent for almost the entire time that she is locked away, rendering the few moments where she makes noise very impactful. A tear gas canister explodes on the other side of the wall and infiltrates the pantry – sending Farha into a coughing fit. This incident indicates her exposure to nearby warfare in spite of her hiding place.

At another point, Farha recalls a scene from earlier in the film. In this scene, Abu Farha granted her request to attend school in the city with Farida, so she shouted “Farida, get the party started!” with glee. She glumly repeats this phrase in the pantry, indicating the extent to which her hope for the future has been destroyed by the conflict.

What Farha sees through a few cracks in the pantry door cements the trauma of her experience. She witnesses Israeli soldiers abusing, and eventually killing, a Palestinian family, including two young children and a newborn baby. In a particularly harrowing scene, one of the Israeli soldiers cannot bear to stamp on the newborn. Instead, he covers the baby’s face with a handkerchief – intending for him to suffocate. The baby’s forlorn cries are heard within the pantry. Farha’s inability to save the baby compounds the tragedy. 

The camera is kept trained on Farha’s face, prioritising Farha’s internal experience over the brutality that occurs beyond the pantry walls. The maxim that the eyes are the windows to the soul is affirmed by Taher’s moving performance. Farha’s nuanced facial expressions convey a multitude of emotions: from fear, misery, and pitiful reflection to pain and anger. Her coming of age is not just psychological, but physiological, with her first period arriving during her confinement. 

Near the end of the film, Farha finds a gun stashed within a sack of lentils in the pantry. This discovery reveals that the threat of violence was ever-present, not sudden and unexpected, symbolising the longevity of the Zionist ideology.

Farha is an evocative debut that conveys the brutality of its eponymous character’s coming of age during the Nakba through simple, earnest storytelling. The film’s piercing explorations of loss, dispossession, and survival uncover the physical and emotional burdens of the Nakba on its Palestinian victims. 


Farha is available to stream on Netflix.

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