Columbia University recently hosted a screening of the Jordanian film Farha as part of trend at a host of other universities. Since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2021, however, the film has received significant backlash from the Jewish community, with good reason.
The film portrays the experience of the titular Farha, a 14-year-old Palestinian girl, during the Nakba or “catastrophe”—the Palestinians’ term for the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent refugee crisis.
Since it is currently streaming on Netflix, I decided to watch the film itself rather than take the word of journalists or Israeli government officials. I felt it was important to draw my own conclusions.
Locked in a pantry by her father to ensure her safety during the 1948 war, the young Farha witnesses a series of interactions between Palestinian villagers and Israeli soldiers. At one point, Israeli soldiers murder an entire family. They 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 historical portrayal to reckon with, if true. This begs the question: Is it historically accurate?
The short disclaimer “inspired by true events” opens the film, leading the viewer to assume that the story is non-fiction. A quick look at online film reviews reveals that many reacted to 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 “Farha” as a “truthful story.”
It’s easy to let the critical words “inspired by” simply fade to black, particularly because they appear for less than six seconds on screen. But as informed viewers, we mustn’t. For the film’s director Darin Sallam, “inspiration” played a much larger role in the storyline than “true events.”
Sallam based the film on the story of a woman who was locked in a room during the 1948 conflict in order to avoid the fighting. This is the only aspect of the woman’s story that was authentically portrayed. The director did not even hear the story of the massacre from the woman herself. Sallam’s mother relayed the story to her second-hand. Attempts to locate the woman were unsuccessful, and instead of being concerned about this, 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 in? 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 Pappe’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 together anecdotes, the writings of a notorious academic with a reputation for confabulation and other hearsay in order to create the film.
It is telling that Sallam employed Ilan Pappe’s book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine as a source. A point-by-point refutation of the book is beyond the scope of this piece, but suffice it to say that the work received much criticism from other historians and reviewers.
“At best, Ilan Pappe must be one of the world’s sloppiest historians; at worst, one of the most dishonest,” wrote one critic. “Ilan Pappe is an Israeli academic who has made his name by hating Israel and everything it stands for,” said another.
The history of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence is a complex one, as most conflicts are. Obviously, when seven Arab armies invaded the nascent Jewish state, Israel fought back. It had no other choice, lest it face destruction 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 not only that the “true” story it portrays may very well not be true, but that it caricatures one side without the broader historical context. It makes no mention of the U.N. Partition Plan that was accepted by Zionist leaders and rejected by their Arab counterparts. It also conveniently leaves out any mention of the acts of brutality perpetrated against Jewish fighters during the war or the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Muslim and Arab lands after Israel’s victory.
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. This should be roundly decried by universities, not celebrated. Playing fast and loose with bitterly contested history could very well beget violence “inspired” by falsehoods masquerading as historical fact.
Alexandra Orbuch is a sophomore at Princeton University and an undergraduate fellow for CAMERA on Campus.