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'Farha' tells the story of a Palestinian girl in 1948

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been one of the deadliest weeks in years in the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. On Thursday, Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians during a raid in the occupied West Bank. On Friday, as the Jewish Sabbath was getting underway, a Palestinian gunmen killed seven people outside a synagogue. And two more Israelis were injured Saturday in another shooting in East Jerusalem. This follows months of increased raids by Israeli forces across the West Bank, recent rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza and airstrikes in response. At times like this, attention naturally focuses on the violence of the moment, but a new feature film asks viewers to consider the roots of the conflict in a way they might not have seen before.

"Farha" is the first feature by Darin Sallam, who wrote and directed it based on stories recounted by family members. Set in 1948 during the formation of the state of Israel, it's the story of a Palestinian girl with big dreams of leaving her small village for the city to further her education, but whose dreams and her world are shattered by violence, changing her and the world around her forever. It explores why a time celebrated by so many Israelis is seen so differently by Palestinians, who call it the Nakba, Arabic for the catastrophe. It's an intimate and, at times, devastating film that's been well-received on the festival circuit since its premiere last year. It was selected as Jordan's official entry to this year's Academy Awards, but it has also been the subject of a fierce backlash, including from Israeli officials and others who object to its portrayal of atrocities allegedly committed by Israeli fighters during the campaign for independence. Some have called for boycotts of the film of theaters that show it and of Netflix for distributing it.

And Darin Sallam is with us now to tell us more about it. She's in Amman, Jordan, where she lives. Darin, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DARIN SALLAM: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: So you've said the film is based on a story or stories that you have been told throughout your childhood. Would you just tell us a little bit about that? Tell us a bit more.

SALLAM: It's a story that I heard when I was a child from my mother who met the lead character. Her name was Raddiyeh (ph). But I chose Farha, which means joy, because I felt like how people talked about Palestine before 1948, it was like the joy that was stolen from the Palestinians. But it's something that I heard when I was a child, and it stayed with me.

MARTIN: So as I said at the beginning, Farha is a girl who doesn't just want to be a homemaker. I mean, nothing - not that there's anything wrong with being a homemaker, but she wants to get an education to be a teacher. You know, I was just thinking that the girl with her head in the book is the basis of so many stories that are familiar to us, like, you know, "Beauty And The Beast" or there's - you know, there's a famous short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer called "Yentl The Yeshiva Boy," which - a famous story from the '60s. I was just wondering how you decided that her character should be someone who wants to have, you know, the life of the mind, like, to be a thinker. Why do you think that came to you that way?

SALLAM: Actually, Palestinians are very - like, we're very always interested in education. And this is why I wanted to mention this. Also, there was a character that I read about in a book, one of the books I read while doing the research for the film. And there was this girl - her name was Arifa (ph) and she was (inaudible) and she wanted to get an education in the city. And this also made me think of adding this aspect to the character, to Farha. But also, I wanted to talk about a girl who was deprived from her childhood, but also from her dream, which is education.

MARTIN: I want to point out that this film has a lot of beautiful scenes about a way of life. But here now, I want to play a scene that is a difficult one, but it goes to the heart of the criticism against the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FARHA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Please don't do it. They're just children. They are not fighters. Please. You promised me. No.

MARTIN: I think people can understand why this is so emotionally devastating and why this is so controversial. So - and I do want to say, because even without the benefit of the video, the scene is extremely - how can I say? It's disturbing but not as graphic as one might think. So you made choices here as a filmmaker. Talk to me a little bit about the choices that you make and why the scene is so important. And I also want to know how you decided to film it.

SALLAM: I didn't want to make a film about killing and the war. And thus I wanted to make a film about a girl who was forced into this and who was deprived from her childhood and from her dreams, from her life, from everything, from her friend and her father. And it's a coming-of-age film, a humane story. I decided to show only one scene as the climax. But if you notice, it's not even - like, you don't see much. It's mostly heard from Farha because she can't look. The scene is just a drop in an ocean of what - compared to what happened back then in 1948.

MARTIN: So, as we said, there have been some furious reactions to the film. Some Israeli officials and celebrities say the film presents a false narrative. It says that government officials even threatened to revoke state funds for theater in the Israeli city of Jaffa for showing the film. What is your response to these reactions?

SALLAM: To be honest, I wasn't shocked from their reaction. I was shocked that they're denying that it happened, that the killing never happened and the Haganah militias never killed anyone. Denying it is like continuation for the crime, you know? It's a continuation for the Nakba. And this is what really surprised me, because it's like denying a tragedy that, like, a nation went through. And my grandparents are, like, one of these people, you know? My father was 6 months old when he was - he was very sick and he had fever. And my grandparents had to leave because the next - area next to them, they were hearing about massacres and killings. So they had to take the baby and leave. And if my father didn't survive this, I wouldn't be, like, existing today, you know? Accusing me and - of putting lies in the film and of being antisemite was also very offensive as an Arab, as a Semite woman, you know?

MARTIN: I mean, look, it's not a documentary. I mean, it's a feature film which you wrote based on oral histories. But there have been documentation - have there not? - of the fact that atrocities did occur.

SALLAM: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, you - do - let me just ask you this, and I don't mean to cause offense. Were there second sources for your work? I know it's - you have entirely every right, as a filmmaker, to rely on whatever source material that you choose, including oral history. But are there other documented sources that one could point to that document that these things occurred?

SALLAM: Yes. Actually, there was archive - even their archive, by the way. There was this very important book by Ilan Pappe, "Ethnic Cleansing." There are other movies, like "Tantura" documentary recently, who has soldiers who were from the Haganah militias. And they're talking about how many people they killed while laughing and how many 12-year-old girls they raped - Palestinians back then and then the Nakba. And they're laughing about it. I mean, it's very easy to find proof. It's not even, like, difficult. And this is why, to me, it's shocking because - I mean, come on. It's - like, it's many, many - like, 400 - more than 400 villages were destroyed. Like, maybe 24 massacres happened. Seven million Palestinians are refugees today because of this, and 700,000 or more were forced into exile.

MARTIN: Do you have - now, forgive me, I'm going to push a little bit here. Do you have any sympathy for the people who don't want to believe it? Because it does challenge a sense of a founding belief, and many people are raised with this founding belief. I mean, I'm thinking about, like, in the United States, for example, you know, we, as children, are raised with the idea that George Washington, the first president of the United States, was a heroic, beatific figure and then come to find out, you know, that he's - was a person who enslaved people. And it's a challenge for people to confront a different version of the story that they have been told that makes them feel pride in their country. So I just have to ask, do you have any sympathy for people who just don't want to believe it?

SALLAM: I know that, like, many are in denial because they were born listening to another story. I understand that this is what they know. Because, you know, Michel, like, the film has been around the world. And, like, sometimes in Europe and in the States and in many countries, some people come to me and say, I'm Jewish and I never knew this. Many people call the film as an eye-opener. And I respect these people who are willing to learn and understand the truth. I know that truth hurts, and this is why I think it's very painful for some. It's our truth. It's also my history. And the history of my family needs to be respected and accepted and acknowledged and not denied, you know? And I respect anyone who is willing to learn and understand my story.

MARTIN: So you were just starting to talk about this, so I want to ask further. We've talked about the negative responses. What about the positive ones? Are there any that particularly stand out?

SALLAM: Yeah. Actually, like, I received many emails and messages from people saying thank you for letting our voice be heard. And another message that was emotional to me was that - from a woman who witnessed the Nakba, that her mother said, I'm Farha, and they can't deny that this happened. And every Palestinian girl who witnessed the Nakba is Farha. And then another one sent, my mother is Farha. My grandmother is Farha. And this is - like, was one of the most emotional things I received.

MARTIN: That was writer and director Darin Sallam. Her film "Farha" is streaming now on Netflix. Darin Sallam, thanks so much for joining us today.

SALLAM: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.