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In Israel, a scandal over Netflix’s choice to stream a film depicting the 1948 murder of a Palestinian family

In a conflict that is largely over dueling narratives, the film ‘inspired by true events’ is causing a stir

Farha, the debut feature film of Jordanian filmmaker Darin J. Sallam, made headlines even before it began streaming on Netflix Dec. 1.

The film depicts the story of a young Palestinian girl who witnesses Israeli soldiers murder a family during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War that resulted in the creation of the state of Israel and which Arabs refer to as the Nakba (catastrophe). It is a work of historical fiction and has been marketed as “inspired by real events,” aiming to present the dominant Palestinian view of the war. But Israeli politicians are irate at the film, and that the Al Saraya Theater in Jaffa, Tel Aviv — a cultural venue that receives state subsidies — screened it. 

“It’s crazy that Netflix decided to stream a movie whose sole purpose is to create a false pretense and to incite against Israeli soldiers,” said outgoing finance minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The film shows “lies and libels,” outgoing culture minister Hili Tropper told The Times of Israel, calling Al Saraya’s plan to screen it on Nov. 30 “a disgrace.” Nataly Dadon, a model and Instagram influencer, joined a campaign to cancel Netflix subscriptions, saying: “The Jewish people” never “carried out purges, murdered innocent people for no reason and out of sheer cruelty!”

The outcry is not surprising. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is largely a war over narrative, land and history. Jewish Israeli society is largely intolerant of the Palestinian perspective on the war, and teaching about the Nakba is criminalized by a 2011 “Nakba Law” that bans any entity that receives state funding from supporting activities that mark Israeli Independence Day as a day of mourning.

While the exact events in the film may not have happened, it is not a lie, nor libelous, to say that Palestinian civilians, including women and children, were killed during the creation of the state. Efforts by Jewish Israelis to suppress this narrative only further entrench existing hostility and calcify any efforts toward coexistence.

“No reasonable person still believes there were no acts of expulsion and massacre by the Jewish side in the 1948 war,” Israeli historian Benny Morris has written of his country’s earlier attempts to hide this history.

Farha is told from the perspective of the 14-year-old titular character, a young girl living in Palestine in 1948. The first third of the film feels like it belongs in a wholly different movie both in tone and content: It deals solely with her resistance to getting married, and her desire to go to school in an unnamed city with her friend Fareeda.

The first 20 minutes show a largely idyllic village life picking figs, celebrating an engagement, and learning Quran. The peace is broken by British soldiers driving in a convoy past her village, and her father has hushed meetings over tea with Palestinian fighters, yet the emotional stakes are conveyed in wooden dialogue about resisting tradition and dreams of education.

The war comes suddenly to Farha’s unnamed village. We see and hear bullets flying, people flee screaming and Farha’s father attempts to have her flee with Fareeda by car. When Farha resists, he takes her home and locks her in their pantry, promising that he will return. The majority of the film is a claustrophobic thriller: Farha, trapped inside a small space and surviving on olives, pickle brine and rainwater, can only wonder at the terror happening outside.

From the outcry on social media, though, I had expected a film rife with antisemitic tropes and accusations of blood libel. However, Israelis are not directly mentioned, nor seen, until nearly 50 minutes into the 91-minute film.

We only hear Farha’s father, Abu Farha, the mukhtar (mayor) of the village, make veiled references to the war: “It’s a volatile time.” “They have surrounded the village.” Farha does not shy away from embellishing the violence of the Nakba, but the substantive actions of the Jewish soldiers it portrays are accurate, according to mainstream views among both Israeli and Palestinian historians.

Certain details in the most discussed scene in Farha, where Israeli soldiers murder a Palestinian family, seem designed to exploit the viewer’s emotions — and advance negative tropes about Jews. It feels deliberate that the only Israeli soldier in the group who is wearing a kippah is the one who is ordered to murder a newborn baby (he doesn’t). 

While there are a few documented cases of Israeli soldiers killing Palestinians by firing squad during the 1948 war, I felt nauseous watching a female soldier pull off the Palestinian mother’s earrings before lining her up to be shot along with her family. The scene is extremely difficult to watch, and certainly intentional: We watch in horror as Farha, played by Karam Taher, catches only glimpses of the murder through a crack in her pantry door.

Farha makes no effort to humanize the soldiers, and these characters’ cruelty made me uncomfortable. The 15 minutes devoted to this scene suggests the director was purposefully trying to depict the soldiers who helped create the Jewish state as violent brutes. 

Still, the painful reality is that some Israeli soldiers did kill men, women and children on the path to creating a Jewish state. 

The closing title card of the film states that “Farha (whose name is Radiyyeh in the original events) made it to Syria, where she shared her story to keep it alive for generations to come.” The writer and director, Sallam, has said Radiyyeh was a friend of her mother’s, and that the film is a creative depiction of a true story that has haunted her since childhood.

Farha is Jordan’s 2022 Oscar submission for best foreign film, a choice I suspect was made largely due to politics rather than the quality of the film itself. The acting, particularly in the pinnacle scene with the Israeli soldiers, is poor.

Too few Palestinian stories make it to Netflix (though the Palestinian American comedy Mo is excellent), and Farha is the first major narrative film to depict the 1948 war from a Palestinian point of view. 

Despite the clunky filmmaking and problematic portrayal of Israelis, I still believe that stories about the Palestinian perspective of Israeli statehood deserve to be made. Hopefully subsequent filmmakers will be more skillful and less propangandistic than Sallam. 

In a statement defending the decision to screen the film, the manager of the Al Saraya theater in Jaffa, Mahmoud Abo Arisheh, said: “We are committed to defending our right to exist and to express ourselves … we are committed to the freedom of art, all art.”

A true democracy, a state that is actually living its Jewish values, would know that truth is not in black and white, but gray. Looking at the past through the eyes — and art — of their neighbors will only deepen their understanding of the other, something both Israelis and Palestinians desperately need.

I do not believe the state of Israel to be so fragile that a film will destroy it. In a conflict with two wildly divergent narratives of Israel’s origins, attempts to censor one point of view over the other only causes Israeli humanity to atrophy.

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