Farah: Emirati-produced film emerges from Covid for cinema screens

After being sidelined by the Beirut blast and the pandemic, Farah has resurfaced more relevant than ever, with a story of mental health, set to a song by Boy George

Hassiba Freiha, centre, and Kenton Oxley, right, with a member of crew on the set of Farah. Photo: Knockout Productions / Intuitive Features
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It was in 2018 that The National first caught up with husband and wife production team Kenton Oxley and Hassiba Freiha to hear about their film Farah. At the time, Freiha, the film’s Emirati writer, co-star, co-producer and director, alongside her British husband, was still committing the story to the page.

The film finally arrives in cinemas on Thursday, and a lot has happened since. Lebanon, where Farah is set and was shot, and where Freiha can also trace her family roots to, has weathered an economic crisis, the deadly 2020 blast in the Port of Beirut and repeated collapsed governments.

And then there was the pandemic. Oxley reveals that at the start of 2021, when the film was completed, Farah was one of 250 titles selected to be screened that year at “one of the world’s top five film festivals”. Cue another wave of Covid, and the festival was pared down to an online event screening only 50 films — Farah didn’t make the cut.

This year it did finally have its festival run, picking up accolades including the Jury Prize at New York’s Chelsea Film Festival and Best Arabic Film at the Alexandria Mediterranean Film Festival.

The couple acknowledge that, had they achieved last year’s high-profile launch, we might be having a “very different conversation” today, yet conversely they also note that the delays and pandemic-related restrictions may have actually made the film even more topical.

Farah stars rising Lebanese actress and singer Stephanie Atala as Lina, who is prescribed an experimental new drug after experiencing a mental breakdown. Photo: Knockout Productions / Intuitive Features

Farah tells the story of a student, Lina (rising Lebanese actress and pop star Stephanie Atala), who is sent home to Beirut from her American university after experiencing a mental breakdown and being prescribed an experimental new drug.

The topics of mental health and over-reliance on pharmaceuticals were already topical in 2021, and in Lebanon in particular — where the couple cite sources including the Lebanese Psychiatric Society and Unicef that suggest 80 per cent of the population suffer from PTSD.

After more than two years of restrictions, and a highly public debate over the benefits of vaccines, the subjects of mental health and the role big pharma plays in our lives could hardly be more relevant.

Freiha says that although it sounds awful, Covid was in one sense a blessing in disguise. "I just think that people would not have had that much discussion on mental health awareness if it wasn't for Covid. It’s made everyone more open to the subject, because show me anyone who wouldn’t have some kind of mental impact from all of that? I don't think this film could be any more needed, or more relevant, at this point.”

The delayed release also led to another unexpected point of topicality. The film’s theme tune, Try to Remember, is performed by 1980s pop star Boy George, who has somewhat conveniently become a surprise mental health advocate thanks to his discussions of his own struggles, which he revealed during his time on the current series of the UK’s I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!

It’s doubtless a spot of welcome unplanned publicity, but how on earth does global pop royalty come to be performing the theme for an indie film set in Lebanon, produced by an Emirati-British couple who are also directing a feature film for the first time?

“Roy Hay, the guitarist from Culture Club, is a close friend,” says Oxley. “He scores films as well as working with the band, and we were talking on the phone in lockdown. He’d just had Covid, the films he was working on had stalled and he just said ‘please let me score your film. I’m so bored'.”

Unfortunately for Hay, the film’s score was already well under way in the hands of UK music group Unkle's Aiden Lavelle. Where there’s a will there’s a way, however. “We also had this existing song we wanted to use. It's from the musical The Fantasticks, and it’s sung in Arabic, French and English,” Oxley explains.

“It's a profound song to me as my mum and dad met working on that musical, and when my dad passed away we played it at his funeral. It’s about remembering the good times, because ultimately that's what we live for. That's basically what the track is about, and it’s also what the film is about. So that was decided — Roy rearranged it, he got George to sing, Stephanie duets, and it’ll be released as a single around the time of the film’s release.”

The film’s theme tune, Try to Remember, is performed by Boy George. AP

For Freiha and Oxley, this international approach is about more than an opportunity to name-drop. The pair met at Abu Dhabi’s twofour54. Oxley was part of the original team brought in to set up the media hub in 2009, as head of international commercial and production, while Freiha worked on the post-production team.

Although it’s been seven years since they left twofour54 to set up independently, they cite that experience as informing their approach to Farah. “When twofour54 was created, the UAE decided to bring in external knowledge and experience and pair it with local talent to create something that has a sense of storytelling from this part of the world, but with those western production values,” Oxley says.

“That’s what we’ve done here. This is very much an Emirati storyteller, with strong Lebanese links, too, telling a story from this region. We’ve got big-name Arabic actors like Stephanie, and Majdi Machmouchi, and all the production companies involved are from the UAE, but that’s tied in with the best international talent, too.”

That talent includes British sound designer James Mather, a recent Oscar-winner for Belfast, and Australian editor Marcus D’Arcy who was Oscar-nominated for Babe, and on Farah works alongside up-and-coming Lebanese editor Rita Mounzer. It’s an approach they hope will reap rewards.

“I think it’s significant that we’ve had festival success in North America as well as the Arab world,” Oxley says. “We’ve produced something that isn’t your typical Arab art house film, but nor is it a western product. It sits somewhere in between, and I think that has the potential to reach out to a really broad audience.”

Farah is released in cinemas on December 1 and will also be available to stream on Netflix from December 8

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Updated: November 30, 2022, 1:43 PM
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