Centring its story about the effects of war around a teenage girl, Farha, Jordan’s official entry to the Academy Awards, succinctly puts forth its messaging, conveying the brutality of violence through a barebones narrative.
Director Darin J. Sallam’s film starts off with the sun setting on Britain’s Mandate for Palestine, and leads up to the beginnings of the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948. It tells this story across a few days in the life of Farha (Karam Taher), a 14-year-old girl who dreams of getting out of her tiny Palestinian village and going to the city for her formal education.
The timeline that the film follows is part of what is referred to as ‘Nakba’ (catastrophe) by Palestinians. According to the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, the 1948 war led to “over half of the Palestinian Arab population” fleeing or being expelled. On November 30, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the Division for Palestinian Rights to dedicate its “activities in 2023 to the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Nakba.”
Farha’s feisty determination, a driving force that even succeeds in convincing her father to allow her to go to the city, is rudely stopped in its tracks as the conflict reaches her village. This makes up the foundation upon which the film steadies itself — that the first casualties of war are not the politicians who perpetuated it, but the civilians on whom an unnatural ending is thrust.
Sallam, in her first feature-length film, expertly uses the creative tool to hammer in the aberration that war poses to normal life. The cinematography and set design carefully transition from fairytale-like shots of Farha and her friends relaxing at a small waterfall, and of Farha’s village in vivid colours during a marriage scene, to the streets shrouded in the dust as the conflict begins, and finally to the tightly-composed images of Farha hiding in the dark as she finds herself surrounded by violence.
This descent into mayhem is also marked by a sudden transition; as Farha and her friend Farida excitedly discuss her dream of studying in a city being realised, and what their prospects would look like with formal education, the conversation is interrupted by the sound of a blast in the village, marking the start of the conflict. It once again drives home the point of how civilian lives are left in an indefinite limbo.
A major chunk of the 92-minute film plays out in a food storeroom where Farha has been locked in by her father for her safety. Farha’s life for the next few days is quite literally thrust into darkness as she is only able to gauge what is happening outside through a tiny hole in the wall. The war outside her hiding place is mostly only depicted through the sounds she hears. The constant snap and crack of bullets, and the menacing boom of the bombs fill the storeroom as Farha, and the audience, are left wondering how far the danger actually is.
In interviews, Sallam has described the story as “coming-of-age,” which is successfully executed in the changes that Farha undergoes as a silent witness to the atrocities. When the weapons finally quiet down, and Farha manages to find a way out of hiding, she returns to the places she frequented a few days ago, but both of them are now changed — the village from a fairytale has turned to rubble, and Farah’s mind is heavy with the horrors she has seen.
Through impactful and simple storytelling, in Farah, and Karam Taher in an evocative debut, war is shown through the eyes of those whose voices do not make it to the negotiation table, its most burdened participants.
Farha is currently available for streaming on Netflix