Columbia University recently hosted a screening of the film Farha, following the recent trend of a host of other universities. Since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2021, the film has received significant backlash from the international Jewish community. It portrays the experience of a 14-year-old Palestinian girl during the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” what Palestinians term the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent Palestinian refugee crisis. As it is currently streaming on Netflix, I decided to step into the world of the Jordanian drama rather than take the words of journalists or Israeli government officials; I felt it was important to draw my own conclusions on this film that is making its way onto college campuses across the U.S..
Locked in a pantry by her father to ensure her safety during the conflict, Farha witnesses a series of interactions between Palestinian villagers and Israeli soldiers during the film, during one of which Israeli soldiers murder an entire family; the soldiers shoot the parents and young children and bash in the skull of their infant to save bullets. This is a graphic fictionalized portrayal of Israeli soldiers as bloodthirsty, amoral killers – a serious historical rendering to reckon with, if true. This begs the question, is this historically accurate?
“Inspired by true events.” Look to the short disclaimer that graces the screen at the outset of the film, and you will likely assume that the story is, in fact, non-fiction; “true events” appeared somewhere in the language, right? A quick look at online film reviews reveals that many have viewed the film under that assumption. One reviewer waxes poetic about how “essential” the film is “to understand the history,” while another raves that “the best part is that it’s a true story.” Keep scrolling, and you will encounter similar five-star reviews lauding it for being a “truthful story.”
It’s easy to let the two critical words preceding “true events” simply fade to black, particularly because they appear for less than six seconds on screen as viewers settle in to watch the film; but, as informed viewers, we mustn’t. The ‘inspiration’ of the film’s director Darin Sallam had a far weightier part to play in the storyline than “true events.”
Sallam based the storyline on a woman who had been locked away in a room during the 1948 conflict to avoid the fighting. The only aspect of this young woman’s story that Sallam authentically portrays is the setting. And the director did not even hear about it from the woman herself. Attempts to locate this mythical woman were unsuccessful. Instead of being concerned that her film would stray from historical accuracy, Sallam expressed joy that she would be able to have “some distance and to have the space to create some fiction.”
So, where does the “fiction” come from, if not from a firsthand account? In an interview with TIME magazine, Sallam explained: “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.”
In sum, Sallam all but admits to weaving anecdotes, writings of a notorious academic with a reputation for confabulation and other sundry hearsay to contrive this film. One might stop me here and point to the “research” she did, referencing books like Pappé’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.
A point-by-point refutation of Pappe’s book is beyond the scope of this piece, but suffice it to say that the work received many critical responses in the mainstream media. “At best, Ilan Pappe must be one of the world’s sloppiest historians; at worst, one of the most dishonest,” says one reviewer; “Ilan Pappe is an Israeli academic who has made his name by hating Israel and everything it stands for,” says another.
The history of Israel’s War of Independence is a complex one, as most conflicts are. It would be false to say that when seven armies invaded the nascent Jewish state after rejecting the UN partition plan that Zionist leaders treated amicably, it did not fight back; but it had no other choice, lest it face its demise in its first days. The conflict ended with hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees and there is no doubt that tragedies occurred on both sides.
The danger of Farha is that it caricatures one side without the broader historical context, never mind a true basis in historical storytelling. It makes no mention of the UN Partition Plan – accepted by Zionist leaders and rejected by their Arab counterparts and conveniently leaves out any mention of brutality perpetrated against Jewish fighters during the war of 1948 or the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Muslim and Arab lands.
Blurring the worlds of fact and fiction is a dishonest exercise, particularly when the product is broadcast to millions around the globe and showcased on a host of college campuses; it should be roundly decried by universities, not celebrated. It is an act that could very well beget more violence ‘inspired’ by the very falsehoods that it parades as historical fact.
This article was originally published in Jewish News Syndicate (JNS).