(Awards Watch) TIFF 2021: “Farha" Review
Despite glaring pacing issues, Darin J. Sallam’s debut feature, Farha, manages to leave a strong impression. After a clunky first 30 minutes, the film finds its footing, creating an effective and highly engaging viewing experience that’s both entertaining and contemplative.
Capturing a pivotal moment in the history of Palestine, Farha showcases the macro moments of conflicts and the micro moments of struggle, while focusing on one of Palestine’s less-known female figures and her story of survival. The combination of attempting to both offer a commentary on the forced displacements that started in Palestine once the British forces exited the country as well as the story of a wildly ambitious girl who saw there’s much more in life than succumbing to early marriage, the film wants to be both contextually relevant and narratively intimate – and it only partly succeeds.
The problem with Farha is that it tries to achieve both but almost fails to be something coherent. Fortunately, the film’s final hour makes up for the issues of its first third. Starting off as a low-key empowerment tale of a Farha (Karam Taher, a well-cast newcomer) who lives in one of Palestine’s villages. The daughter of the mukhtar (the head of the village), Farha seems to outright reject the notion she’s destined to be just a wife, living in the shadow of a man. Rebellious and strongly determined to carve a life for herself, she insists on joining the local school, situated outside the village, rather than follow the path that’s been set for her.
But things soon fall apart. Clashing with Farha’s own aspirations and dreams are the harsh political realities: Palestine is about to be free from British occupation only to suffer what’s worse: brutal forced evictions by Israeli forces, eerily similar to the Sheikh Jarrah incidents of 2021, threaten to shake Farha’s own existence. As her father decides to join those fighting for their own right of land, he places up in a safe-house-like cellar.
What starts as a relatively assuring sanctuary becomes quite tortuous for Farha as she is unable to exit the cellar despite multiple attempts. An almost dialogue-free hour kicks off, finally helping the film land on its feet, offering a much-needed change of pace and both a gripping and thoughtful rumination on what it means to be exiled while watching the horrors of war, displacement and killings from the cracks of the cellar walls. The suffering is two-fold; that of guilt of not being able to save those Farha sees being murdered right in front of the cellar and that of imprisonment in a confined space with no ways to get out (Farha’s father had the only key).
Rather than wasting its first third on Farha’s moments of earned empowerment as she succeeds in securing a spot in the local school, the film should have just cut to the chase. While certainly illuminating, Farha’s struggle in a male-dominant Palestinian society adds nothing the story: Sallam never develops this further and the rest of the film feels like it’s cut from a completely narrative cloth. Clunky, grandstanding and conventional dialogue about early marriage, the importance of education and gender discrimation should have receded and taken a backseat to allow for the more contemplative, and frankly much more meaningful part of the story.
Technical credits are spectacular, particularly the production design, costumes and cinematography. Performances, particularly that of Karam, ground the film and add much credibility.
Bottom line: Uneven and flawed, Farha manages to ultimately engage thanks to Sallam’s attention to visual details and getting the best out of her young performer. A timely tale on the horrors of displacement and being unable to heal an agonizing community as one watches their pain from wall cracks, the film will surely resonate with arthouse audiences and may find some interest among mainstream audiences particularly in the Middle East.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. Farha is currently seeking U.S. distribution.