Interview: How to Make a Film About a Polarised, Conflict-Ridden Society

The recent furore over Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s sharp criticism of the controversial Bollywood feature The Kashmir Files started an important debate. However, one of the points left uncontested was how filmmakers and writers should tell the story of Kashmir Pandits’ unimaginable agony with sensitivity in a polarised society like India.

How does one tell the tragic story of Kashmiri Pandits without caricaturing and villainising all Kashmir Muslims, who have also suffered immensely due to the endless cycle of violence? How should a filmmaker resist the temptation to depict extreme gore while being fair to the victims who have suffered horrific violence?

Writing on the controversy, Lapid noted that The Kashmir Files film “is just promoting…in an extremely vulgar and cheap way, an evident set of political positions, using a variety of cheap cinematic manipulations”. He asked whether these horrific things needed to be picturised as they have been in such a film. Commenting on how the film totalises its characters, Lapid said, “In the film, the bad guys get portrayed in a typically bad way. They are not human beings but a caricature of bad people. Even the worst humans are convinced that they are right. For me, this is what turns life into a conflict—one so complicated and terrible.”

As anger over Lapid’s comments grew stronger, Israeli state officials publicly condemned Lapid’s views and apologised to the makers of The Kashmir Files. Meanwhile, a large section of progressive Indians also expressed solidarity with Lapid. Despite the extremely incessant trolling and abuse, Lapid refused to withdraw his comments. A few days later, other foreign members of the jury supported Lapid and agreed that his comments reflected their view.

Now, a similar controversy has erupted in Israel after Netflix’s new release, Farha – a film based on the events of Al Nakba in 1948. During the Nakba, Israeli forces reportedly drove out 800,000 Palestinians from their villages. This eviction involved the mass killing of thousands of civilians, including women and children, setting the plot for what is arguably one of the longest modern conflicts and occupations.

Also read: India Release of Pakistani Film ‘The Legend of Maula Jatt’ Postponed Indefinitely

Over the decades, the relationship between Israel and Palestine has remained strained. 2022 was one of the bloodiest years for Palestinians in recent years. According to a report, this year Israeli forces and settlers have killed 139 Palestinians, including several children, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. An additional 49 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip during a three-day Israeli bombardment in August, including 17 children. Human rights violations in Palestine are highlighted in the international press from time to time, the most recent case being the murder of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh.

While Israel justifies its use of excessive force against Palestinians as self-defence, experts point out that Israel is occupying more and more Palestinian land every year and resettling Israelis there through a disproportionate use of force. Many Palestinians believe that they should have a right to return to their homeland. In November 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to commemorate the “Nakba”.

Jordanian filmmaker Darin Sallam has adapted the story of a Palestinian refugee woman who survived the Nakba and escaped Syria. She had narrated this story to Sallam’s mother – and the story stayed with her forever.

Farha covers the painful ordeal of a Palestinian teenager, Farha, who wants to go to the city to continue her education. Her father is the mayor of a village recently liberated from British occupation. With much effort, Farha succeeds in convincing her father to let her go to the city school – but the immediate breakout of Israeli hostilities during the Nakba crushes her dreams. The happiest moment in the protagonist’s life is interrupted by the sound of gunshots. Abu Farha, her father, locks her up in a small food store in the house to save her from the Israeli forces.

The film fits the classic three-act structure of storytelling and the closing act is in exact contrast to the lively introduction. The characterisation of Israelis and Palestinians is not absolute. Even in the most violent scene in the film, in which Israeli forces kill a Palestinian family in Farha’s courtyard and the senior officer orders a young Jewish officer to kill a newborn Palestinian child, the young officer defies orders and saves the child’s life.

There are many scenes without dialogues. In fact, while watching the film you will not feel the need for dialogues. It comes out as a universal story in which the protagonist could be any woman in any conflict zone.

The Wire caught up with Sallam to talk about the film. Excerpts from the interview follow.

When and why did you decide to make a film on the Nakba?

A still from Darin Sallam. Photo: Twitter/Darin Sallam

Simply when I decide to share the story of Radiyyeh. The story takes place against the backdrop of Al-Nakba and I decided to remain loyal to the original story despite many people telling me that Palestine is not a trendy nor a hot topic nowadays – and that I could take the setup and use it anywhere else – nonetheless I decided to remain loyal to the Nakba.

In the film, we see Farha’s transition from a defiant girl to a young woman coming to terms with the realities of occupation. Why did you focus on this one young woman instead of the action in the background – the war and eviction?

It was important for me to treat Farha as a human being, as a child, and not as a number of the 800,000 Palestinians that were forced into exile in 1948. Farha is a coming-of-age film and I wanted to portray Al-Nakba through the eyes of this young girl, as we witness what she witnessed and how she is forced to grow up. Because you can’t tell everything that happened during Al-Nakba in one film, I chose an intimate setup to convey a close-up on this girl and make it as intense as possible and charge it emotionally and cinematically. At the end of the day, it is a coming-of-age film about a girl who is forced to grow up and let go of her dreams and face all her losses and move on, carrying all these losses and burdens on her small shoulders. The world is used to seeing Palestinians as numbers and it’s time to start seeing them as humans.

While making a fiction feature film on an issue like this, especially in a highly polarised society and since this film is personal for you, how did you manage to be objective in your storytelling? Also, what is the degree of fiction and creative liberty do you think is acceptable in talking about a tragic incident like the Nakba?

I was being objective by showing the truth and nothing but the truth. The scenes in the film are different real moments patched together in a dramatic plot and cinematic structure that I created. But since I can’t show everything that happened in Al-Nakba in one film, I chose one intense scene as a climax and I chose to make an emotional humane film and as one of the audience once said: “When you hear or read something you forgot it, but when you feel something, you never forget it, it stays with you forever.”

Farha is your first feature film. How challenging was it for you as a filmmaker to shoot the majority of your film in a small food store and not let the monotony of the mise en scene dominate the story?

That was a challenge and a risk that I always knew existed but that only made the huis-clos setup more attractive to me. I was re-writing on set and also editing in my head as we were shooting. The use of cinematic elements – the sound design, the change of lighting, the pace of the story etc. were key in keeping the viewer engaged. I even wrote the sound in the script to keep the atmosphere emotionally charged.

Also read: The 10 Best Bollywood Films of 2022 That Entertained Us and Startled Us Too

The plot is based around a tragic incident of ethnic cleansing, but you have not used gory visuals for the storytelling. Can you tell us more about it?

I didn’t want to make an epic film in terms of large amounts of extras, battles scenes, blood etc.; instead I wanted it to make the film epic through the internal feelings and struggles that this young girl goes through. The most blood we see is when she gets her period.

Had the film been based on the present situation in Palestine, do you think that there would be much difference?

No, and this is why I wanted to go back to 1948 to show the source of the Palestinian struggle and suffering back then which is still ongoing today. The wound has been open since 1948 and is still bleeding today.

There has been an attack and slander against Farha on social media by Israeli nationalists, including senior government officials trying to get the film banned on Netflix because of certain scenes. How do you see this outrage?

This scene is nothing compared to what happened and what is still happening in Palestine. This attempt to silence our voices is a continuation of Al-Nakba.

How do you want your film to be remembered?

I hope Farha will be remembered as the film that launched the Nakba genre but also that it will be remembered as a cinematic document for generations to come.

This article was first published on The Wire.