On a warm evening last week, Leila Giries sat in her California home, took a deep breath and pressed play on a film she says forced her to relive the most traumatic moment of her life.
“Farha,” released December 1 on Netflix, is inspired by the story of a young Palestinian girl and the violence she witnessed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when roughly 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes by armed Jewish groups in what Palestinians have since called al-Nakba or “the catastrophe.”
As the groups invaded Farha’s village, her father locked her in a pantry for safety, where she watched the horrors of al-Nakba unfold through a small hole in the wall and crack in the door. As days passed, she was transformed from a spirited 14-year-old who dreamed of going to school into a shell of her former self.
“My kids were watching it at the same time, and when they asked me what I thought, I couldn’t answer them because of how hard I was crying,” said Giries, an 82-year-old Palestinian refugee who survived the war.
“All I could say was, ‘That’s me. Farha is me. That’s me in that room,’” she said, her voice cracking as tears threatened to return.
“Farha” is based on the experience of a Palestinian girl named Radieh, the film’s Palestinian-Jordanian director Darin J. Sallam told CNN at a film screening on Friday in New York City. Radieh survived the war and found refuge in Syria, where she shared her story with a girl she met there. That girl later became Sallam’s mother. Through “Farha,” Sallam hopes Radieh’s story will continue to be shared and “live on in people’s hearts.”
The film, selected as Jordan’s 2023 Oscars entry, has been celebrated the world over for portraying al-Nakba so vividly, as well as offering a perspective on the events that led to Israel’s founding that is rarely seen or heard on a global mainstream platform.
“I created ‘Farha’ because I wanted my audience to watch the film and think with their feelings, not their minds. I wanted people to invest emotionally in the story. I wanted people to feel, and live in the experience of Farha, to experience what she experienced, feel what she felt, hear what she heard, like those who survived the Nakba did,” Sallam said.
But like most accounts of the 1948 war, the film has also been met with criticism and controversy.
Attempts at censorship
Days before “Farha” was released on Netflix, Israelis and their supporters shared videos on social media of themselves unsubscribing from the movie streaming service. Others spammed online film database IMDb with negative reviews despite not having watched it. They called it inaccurate and hateful, among other disparaging remarks.
“It’s crazy that Netflix has chosen to stream a film whose whole purpose is to incite against Israeli soldiers by showing false things,” Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said about “Farha” on Twitter before its release. “Israel is a place where you can show local and international content but not content that talks against Israeli soldiers and spreads lies about them.”
Neither Netflix nor IMDb responded to CNN’s request for comment, and the film remains available for streaming.
Al Saraya Theatre, which screened “Farha” in Jaffa, Israel, was also met with outrage, including protestors who attempted to stop the screening, as seen in videos theater manager Mahmoud Abo Arisheh shared with CNN.
Liberman, head of the center-right political party Yisrael Beiteinu, and Israeli Culture Minister Chili Tropper slammed the theater and called for it to lose government funding.
Despite the threats, Abo Arisheh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, told CNN they chose to proceed with the screening because of the “responsibility to make sure that art in all its forms is accessible to our people, even if not everybody agrees with the content.”
Abo Arisheh also praised Netflix for not removing “Farha” from its website. “People have the right to choose what to watch and what not to,” he said.
In a statement posted to the film’s Instagram page on December 1, Sallam and the film’s producers, Deema Azar and Ayah Jardaneh, denounced what they described as attempts to “silence” Palestinian voices and “dehumanize us and prevent us from telling our stories, our narrative and our truth.”
Many Israelis deny the events of al-Nakba because it cuts to the heart of Israel’s founding, said Julia Bacha, creative director for Just Vision, a nonprofit media group comprised of Israelis, Palestinians and others who envision a “pluralistic, just and rights-respecting future in the region.”
“Bringing the nation’s dark past into the public discourse could weaken the pristine image that patriots hope to project,” Bacha said. “Perhaps worse, it could delegitimize the very foundations on which the nation stands.”
What Palestinians refer to as “the catastrophe,” Israelis celebrate as their battle for independence. Attempts to censor “Farha” should be viewed as “efforts to control the narrative of uncomfortable truths,” she said.
Stefanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a US-based activist group, says showing the film could actually help Israelis come to terms with their history. “‘Farha’ is a beautiful, hard and important film, and it should be required viewing in synagogues and Jewish community centers,” she said. “There are few topics so difficult within Jewish community – or so important for us to reckon with – than understanding the real truth about the nature and founding of the state of Israel.”
‘Everyone needs to see ‘Farha”
Not a day goes by that Giries doesn’t wonder what life would have been like if her family was not forced to leave their home in Ein Karem, now part of Jerusalem.
“When I went back 37 years later, I realized I remembered every single house and building that used to be there,” Giries said. “That’s how many times I traveled to Palestine in my mind, every single day, wanting to go back home.”
She still has the bag her mother grabbed for her as they ran for their lives while the village burned, she said. It’s framed and hanging on a wall in her California home, alongside the key to her family’s Palestinian home, which was reduced to rubble.
Like most Palestinian refugees, Giries is forbidden from returning to live in Israel. Many Palestinian refugees and their descendants – which the United Nations says now number 5 million people – live in UN camps established in neighboring countries. Others are internally displaced throughout the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
Mahmoud Salah, another survivor of al-Nakba, said the violence depicted in “Farha” was eerily similar to what he saw as he fled from the Palestinian village of Sar’a. After his family was expelled, they traveled by foot for six months, sheltering in caves and under trees as they searched for food and safety. He remembers every detail of that journey, from flyers dropped from airplanes urging Palestinians to flee, to the screams of villagers who lost loved ones.
To this day, Salah says he still thinks about life before al-Nakba, memories vivid with the beautiful colors of his homeland. “Since the day we were forced to leave, my eyes have been searching, searching for my village, for the books I left behind, for what of mine has been taken and destroyed,” Salah, 90, told CNN from his home in Orland Park, a suburb of Chicago.
He said having his experience denied for so long only added to the pain and anger. “That feeling of being forced out of our home, our country, will never leave us. I don’t believe in Orland Park. I believe in Jerusalem. I believe in Palestine,” Salah said.
For refugees like Giries and Salah, “Farha” is validation of their experience.
“I’m a product of the Nakba. My parents and grandparents are a product of the Nakba… you cannot deny our existence,” Giries said.
“Everyone needs to see ‘Farha,’ because it is not a fictional story of this girl, it is my story, it is the Palestinian story,” she added. “We don’t care who tells us it isn’t true. We lived it and our stories need to be heard because the injustice against Palestinians did not end with al-Nakba and it is far from over.”