'Farha' and the Claustrophobic State of Palestinian Cinema
Date: 
January 12, 2023
Author: 

Unpopular opinion: Farha is not a very good film, but it is spectacular nonetheless. The film is largely carried by Kamel Taher’s performance and Rachel Aoun’s patient, steadfast cinematography, which bring Darin J. Sallam’s dedicated vision of this haunting story — based on actual events — to life. However, the script is often didactic, the editing is at times rushed, and performances by the film’s biggest name actors are sometimes surprisingly awkward. With these technical shortcomings, there is little space to let the story breathe. Yet, these shortcomings are also what make Farha all the more significant.

The film is spectacular… but not necessarily in the ways one might think. Farha is narratively and visually claustrophobic. This claustrophobia tells us a great deal about both the restrictions placed on representations of Palestinian history and the state of Palestinian cinema.

The storyline is centered on Farha’s confinement, both socially and in relation to historical events. The film begins with a scene of village girls singing and picking figs. Farha — apart from the group — sits in a curled-up ball, engrossed in reading a novel. Here, we learn a basic fact about Farha: she is not like the others. She is cloistered away from her social group in her pursuit of knowledge and escape, while also bursting out of the confines of the gendered social norms of the time.

Farha is also subjected to an impending social confinement: the expectation to marry. When her uncle presses her father to allow Farha to attend school in the city instead of being married off, her father is defensive, worried about going against social norms.

While attending her friend’s bridal shower, Farha is enveloped by a sad anxiety as she realizes that — for her, at least — marriage would be stifling and an impediment to her pursuit of education. This hangs above the narrative, like a rhetorical question: which paths might Palestinian society have taken had the Nakba not occurred?

Just as Farha’s father agrees to break the norm and send her to the city school — relieving her of a social confinement that would stifle her potential — Palestine itself is invaded, seized, reduced, and confined by a new, violent border. Palestinians — many of whom are ethnically cleansed, expelled from their native homes, or brutalized — are subjected to a new set of norms under a neo-colonial apartheid regime. In this sense, the film offers a much more powerful commentary on the trajectory of Palestinian history. Just as Farha challenges the norms within her social context, Farha challenges the norms of the cinematic representation of Palestinian history.

Once the ethnic cleansing begins and the village is under attack, Farha’s social confinement becomes literal. She refuses to evacuate with her uncle’s family, remaining by her father’s side instead. In an attempt to save her from sexual violence or death, her father locks her in a storage room, further concealing the door with plaster.

We as spectators are now confined with Farha as she hears the sounds of invasion and wrestles with her predicament. During this literal period of confinement, the close camera work chronicles the way her body shrinks under the circumstances of enclosure and deprivation. As dehydration sets in, her skin becomes dry – the crusted blood on her cracked lips often becomes a focal point of the frame. Spectators undergo a kind of empathetic confinement, holding our breath in anticipation as we watch Farha choke on smoke and stale air. We recognize Farha’s pinched agony of needing to urinate with nowhere to go. As Farha becomes witness to a massacre, spectators bear witness alongside her. We see the family’s murder from Farha’s perspective, framed through the cracks of the door. Our vision, like Farha’s vision, is obstructed.

This aesthetic of claustrophobia functions to not only represent Farha’s literal experiences of confinement, but as an allegory for the restrictions imposed on the cinematic representation of Palestinian history. Whether it be the legion of Israeli films and Hollywood films which demonize Palestinians, or the propensity in the West to represent the Israeli regime and Occupied Palestine through the fiction of “balance,” part of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination has required grappling with Edward Said’s famous call for “permission to narrate.” Despite being subjected to a 75-year-long colonizer’s narrative, Palestinian filmmakers — and indeed, the Palestinian film industry — have reclaimed the Palestinian narrative in spite of the obstacles and restrictions involved in attempting to create a national cinema under conditions of occupation, apartheid, and exile.

These historical and narrative restrictions are indeed what make the film spectacular… but not in the sense of exaggerating or melodramatizing the fictional account of historical events. Farha is spectacular in that it is being received as a spectacle. “The spectacle” wrote Guy Debord in 1967, “is not a collection of images… but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

Within the context of Zionist erasure, even the most basic depictions of the Nakba are considered spectacular in that such depictions mediate and renegotiate existing social relations. Understanding Farha in terms of spectacle serves two purposes. First, a spectacle — in and of itself, regardless of artistic quality — is considered significant and striking just based on the mere uniqueness of its content. Representations of Palestine are inherently considered spectacular largely because the cultural hegemony of Zionism has restricted the representation of Palestinian history through institutionalized racism and outright censorship. A film depicting the Nakba therefore need not be beautiful, stunning, or even good to be considered spectacular… it simply has to be. This, unfortunately, sets a low bar for Palestinian representation. Second, the spectacle around the film also tells us a great deal about Palestinian cinema’s relationship to power and the shifting nature of those power relations. 

How and why are these power relations shifting? The spectacle being made of Farha is not simply about aesthetic representation, image, or narrative. Like Farha herself, the ever-growing body of Palestinian cinema is bucking against the restraints imposed on it. Representations of Palestine — whether through Palestinian cinema or Palestine solidarity cinema — are not unmoored from the political economy of the global film industry, which is still largely organized through a paradigm of “national cinema.” And this is where questions about narrative permission, filmmaker identity, and a film’s national categorization become messy.

The spectacle being made of the Israeli state’s condemnation of the film has produced a host of thought pieces using this as evidence that representation is one of — if not the most — important methods in the struggle for Palestinian self-determination and eventual liberation. This hyperfixation on representation has the unfortunate effect of restricting the public discourse on the film to an effusive, surface-level valorization of image and narrative, and obstructs important concerns about narrative permission, political economy, and most importantly, Farha’s cinematic national identity.

It’s important to note that despite filmmaker Sallam’s Palestinian roots, the film itself bears Jordanian nationality. The official categorization of Farha as Jordanian is both a boon and a bane to the advancement of Palestinian cinema. In many ways, the Jordanian categorization reproduces the Saidian problem of mediated narration by empowering Jordanian national cinema to represent both Palestinian filmmaking and history. In other ways, it’s possible that same categorization is what enabled the film to gain acceptability, prominence, and circulation in the West.

Farha was Jordan’s official submission for Academy Award nomination in the category of Best International Feature Film. Palestinian films of exceptional artistic quality have been submitted for Oscar consideration many times before, specifically on behalf of Palestine. Yet, most of these incredible movies have never received nominations. A prime example is Annemarie Jacir’s narrative film When I Saw You the story of a young boy’s expulsion from Palestine and struggle to cope with the new reality of his life as a refugee. The film — which, in many ways, is a love letter to Palestinian revolutionary cinema of the 1960s and 1970s — was submitted in 2012 as the official Palestinian entry for the 85th Academy Awards. It did not even receive a nomination.

Farha offers a more acceptable representation of Palestinian history to a Western audience. precisely because it is a spectacular story delivered under a Jordanian label. It plays into trauma porn that continues to deny Palestinian permission to narrate. Farha — as well as Mai Masri’s 3000 Nights (2016) and Aymeen Nayeh’s 200 Meters (2020) being submitted as Jordan’s official submissions for Oscar consideration — exemplify this problem regarding the nation-based categorization of Palestinian filmmaking within the global political economy of cinema.

Farha did not make the Oscar shortlist this round. However, if the film had gained nomination (and, by some miracle, won an Oscar), the Jordanian film industry would have stood to reap cultural and financial capital from the representation of Palestine, a travesty in and of itself given the Jordanian government’s terrible treatment of Palestinians who live in Jordan. The stakes were high here because an Oscar win for Jordanian Farha would have risked reifying the continued displacement of Palestine from the field of Palestinian cultural production.

Just as a viewer may wonder what would have happened to Farha had she gone to school, or had the Nakba not occurred, one may also wonder: what kind of film could Farha have turned out to be had it been produced (and submitted for Oscar consideration) as a Palestinian film, instead of as a Jordanian film?

A Jordanian film representing Palestinian history further constitutes a spectacle, in that it is an affront to the Palestinian struggle for self-representation. Such a spectacle also risks reproducing a Zionist talking point, which has historically been used to justify Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the warped logic being: if Palestinians want their own state, then Palestinians should just go to Jordan. This is a way for Israel propagandists to deflect attention for the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

If we really care about the reality of Palestinian dispossession, then we need to take seriously the ways in which dispossession is reproduced within the realm of cultural production. It is important to bolster the institutionalization of Palestinian cinema for purposes beyond simple representation, and for the aim of making material, financial, and cultural changes through the expansion of Palestine’s film industry. That entails bringing more Palestinian filmmakers from exile and diaspora — such as up-and-coming filmmakers like Sallam — into the fold of the Palestinian film industry and categorizing their works as Palestinian.

In a recent review of Farha for The New ArabRanda Abdel-Fattah argues:

“Embedded deep in every pro-Israel, Zionist’s psyche is fear. Fear of losing cultural control of Israel’s branding in mainstream popular culture. Fear of losing control of the narrative of Israel as victim and Palestinian as less-than-human that has dominated Western media and cultural and artistic mainstream spaces for decades.”

While the representation of Palestinian history on a mainstream platform is certainly spooking those most concerned with whitewashing the apartheid state, the Zionist backlash to this and other films is less a fear of representation so much as it is a fear of the institutionalization of that representation and its circulation within a global capitalist marketplace. Why else would Israel’s finance minister not only condemn the film, but also withdraw state funding from the Al Saraya Theater in the predominantly Palestinian city of Jaffa for simply screening the film? The Israeli state is aware that Palestinian cinema poses a threat to the neo-colonial project — not simply in terms of representation, but in terms of capital. As an industry, Palestinian cinema has attained legitimacy within a larger political economy. It is much harder to silence an industry and its capital than it is to silence a people and their narrative.

Despite the overwhelming focus on the supposed power of representation, Palestinian spectators and their allies intuitively understand that the culture war over this film has far less to do with representation and far more to do with the institutionalization of Palestinian representation and its place within the global marketplace of cinema. This is evidenced by some calls on social media to boost the film’s ratings on IMDB.com, and even the suggestion to — instead of actually watching the film — simply stream it in the background in order to up its viewership numbers with Netflix.

While I certainly understand why some would be reluctant to watch a cinematic depiction of the violence of the Nakba, this kind of casual disregard for the film itself is truly unfortunate. It reduces Sallam’s work to a utilitarian object, rather than a piece of cinema.

That said, this film does indeed serve an important utility… one that especially has to do with Sallam. Farha will be her stepping stone to greater glory. While Sallam’s ultimate masterpiece may be years in the making. I look forward to it. And when that masterpiece is submitted to the Academy Awards, I hope that it will be the official submission on behalf of Palestine.

About The Author: 

Umayyah Cable (they/them) is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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