Darin J Sallam’s debut feature Farha is replete with dark close-ups of the protagonist that are framed like tragic Rembrandt portraits.
But one in particular, midway through the film, stands out, and best encapsulates the emotional and historical gravity of the work: In a windowless pantry where the character Farha, 14, spends two-thirds of the film, her features are barely visible. The vivid light in her eyes wavers behind tears. She is looking towards the door of the pantry, locked from the outside by her father. Beyond it, the silence is thick as it replaces the sound of gunfire.
The year is 1948, and Palestine is in the peak of a catastrophe that is referred to today as the Nakba. The term, which translates to calamity, signifies a time between 1947 to 1949, when more than 500 Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed and more than 700,000 people forcibly displaced.
Sallam says Farha is inspired by the real-life experience of one refugee, Raddiyeh. Her story, the Jordanian-Palestinian filmmaker points out, travelled to her across a generation and the Levant.
“She was a girl who lived in Palestine during the Nakba,” Sallam tells The National. “Her father locked her in the pantry [to protect her]. Her stepmother then let her out later and they both survived, making it to Syria. The father disappeared. After Raddiyeh went to Syria, she met a little girl and told her the story. That little girl was my mother.”
This is not a spoiler, as Raddiyeh’s story is not replicated beat-by-beat in Farha, which made its worldwide debut in September during the Toronto International Film Festival and premiered regionally during the Red Sea International Film Festival.
Rather, the film pivots around a question that has persistently haunted Sallam ever since she first heard the story: what did Raddiyeh do in that storage room before her stepmother let her out?
“I am claustrophobic,” Sallam says. “I’m scared of small, dark spaces and the story stayed with me because I kept thinking what happened to this girl as she was locked in that pantry? I used to constantly ask my mother, but she didn’t know as Raddiyeh never went into detail about what had happened in that pantry.
“I kept thinking if I was in her place, I’d have lost my mind.”
The story, Sallam says, seemed like an obvious choice when, after having released a handful of short films, she decided to work on a feature.
“There was a reason the story had stayed with me, I thought,” she says. “So I had to talk about it, express what I was feeling with it.”
Sallam began working on the film’s script in 2016, and three years later, decided it was time the project materialised out of the page. Even then, Sallam did not have a finished script, but rather a loose blueprint of the scenes that would make up the film.
“I like to improvise,” Sallam says. “As an artist, I believe we need to surrender to the moment, to the inspiration. I don’t believe in paper but emotion. I used to write the dialogue on the spot as we were shooting.”
The film features sharp performances from several veteran Arab actors including Ashraf Barhom, Ali Suliman and Sameera Asir. However, as more than 50 minutes of the film centres solely on the titular character, it is first-time actress Karam Taher that ensures Farha leaves a mark.
Sallam says it took a long time and a string of lacklustre auditions until she found the right person to play Farha. The filmmaker knew she wouldn’t be casting a professional actress, so wasn’t expecting a particularly strong audition.
“I was looking for an actress who had that captivating quality in their eyes,” Sallam says. “And then, as we started doing auditions, I was struck by a disappointing fact. Several of the actresses auditioning did not know much about the Nakba. Karam did though, and she had a grandmother who would tell her stories of Palestine.”
Sallam had still not told Taher she had been cast when the filmmaker gave her an assignment.
“I told her to go to her grandmother and ask her to tell her about the Nakba, and then to write about it.”
A few days later, Taher approached Ashraf Barhom, the Jordanian production company behind the film, with her assignment in hand.
“It showed me she was serious about the role,” Sallam says. “She may have been shy during her audition, but it proved to me that she had potential.”
Once cast, Sallam and Taher began a five-month-long acting workshop in which the director taught the budding actress “how not to act.”
“A lot of young actors want to prove themselves to the point that they overact emotions,” Sallam says. “I wanted her performance to be effortless. We went through non-verbal behaviour, body language, even psychodrama and recalling certain moments. We trained once or twice a week for months.”
I needed her to trust me. By the end of it, I could draw an abstract shape on a piece of paper, a circle or a square, and she’d know exactly what I meant by it.”
As most of the scenes within the film take place in the dark, enclosed space of a storage room, Sallam says she had no choice but to confront her claustrophobia.
“Karam wanted me to be there in every scene in that dark pantry,” Sallam says. “Thinking back, shooting those moments was like therapy. It helped me get over my claustrophobia.”
Sallam says she is routinely asked why she chose to do a period piece for her first feature, “when there are so many stories happening in Palestine today.”
The filmmaker says she chose to go back to precisely this moment in time to upend the narrative that Palestine “was a land without people for a people without a land”, a phrase that is commonly quoted in association with the establishment of Israel.
“Palestine existed. There was life there, people living with their hopes and ambitions,” she says. “The film is also a way to show that we won’t forget. And when I saw how many of the young actresses did not have a clear understanding of the Nakba, it pushed me more.
"When we screened in Toronto, a lot of people in the audience, non-Arabs, were leaving the movie Googling more about the event. To me, that’s a huge win. It is the impact I want the film to have.”