“I’m not afraid to tell the truth”: Jordanian filmmaker Darin Sallam discusses “Farah”
DJEDDAH: When Kuwait-born Jordanian filmmaker Darin Sallam was a child, she was told the story of Radieh, a young Palestinian woman who watched from a locked cellar as the disaster devoured her village. Hidden by her father, Radieh will bear witness to the violent displacement of her people before heading to Syria, where she passed her story on to another young girl. This girl was going to grow up, get married and share the same story with her own daughter.
“And that girl is me,” Sallam said with a smile. “History has traveled over the years to reach me. He stayed with me. When I was a kid I had this fear of closed and dark places and I kept thinking about this girl and what had happened to her. So when I grew up and became a filmmaker, I decided this would be my first feature film.
That debut album is “Farha,” which had its regional premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival this month and received a special mention at the festival’s Yusr Awards. Inspired by the story told to Sallam as a child (although Radieh became Farha – played by newcomer Karam Taher), it addresses the horror of the Nakba (the violent expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland), which is poignantly portrayed from the unique perspective of a young girl trapped inside a single room.
To film this pivotal moment in Palestinian history from such a limited perspective was a daring directorial decision. Taking place mostly in a room (the camera never leaves that room), the film only gives its protagonist two restricted views of the outside world – a slit in the cellar door and a small hole in one of the walls. As a result, Sallam relied heavily on her cinematographer Rachel Aoun, who would act as Farha’s eyes, and her sound designer Rana Eid, who would be her ears. For Aoun and Sallam, the main challenge was to avoid repeating certain shots and angles, while Eid was given the responsibility of recreating the sound of the Nakba.
“I spoke to Rana while the script was still on paper,” says Sallam, whose previous film was the award-winning short “The Parrot”. “She read the script, we discussed it and she was drawn to the fact that the sound was written and very important in this movie. I was, like, ‘Rana, most of the time the sound is more important than the work of the camera and the picture.’ I wanted the audience to feel and hear what Farha hears and that would only be possible if the sound was perfect.
Interestingly, Sallam didn’t tell his cast where the camera was, especially while filming the film’s central traumatic sequence, which Farha is forced to endure while in hiding. This scene took four days to shoot and involved 10 actors (some trained, some not) and a tremendous amount of planning and choreography.
“We had four days and each day we had to emotionally pick up where we left off the day before, so I was worried about them,” says Sallam. “It was exhausting and tiring already and every day we had to make sure we were in one place, got ourselves in the mood for the stage and remembered everything together.”
It was difficult, not only because of the physical demands placed on the actors, but because of the psychological weight of what was being performed. After the film’s first screening in Jeddah, actress Sameera Asir (Um Mohammad) said filming such painful scenes had affected her deeply emotionally. She was not alone. “Some of the crew were crying behind the monitor during filming, remembering their families and their stories, and the stories they had heard from their grandparents,” says Sallam.
Although a witness and not an active participant, Farha is the focal point of the film throughout. The camera spends over 50 minutes inside the basement with her, which is why Sallam knew Taher’s performance would make or break the film.
“People need to love and feel with her and have compassion on her. She must be stubborn and mean and in many ways I was very specific about what I wanted. I was looking for that raw material – a girl who had never acted but who was ready to commit. I was looking for the right girl and I knew I would see her in her eyes. Those bright, passionate eyes. And when I met Karam, it wasn’t really hearing that made me want to invest more in her. She was very shy. She was 14 at the time (15 when filming started), but I gave her homework on the Nakba and she texted me shortly after saying, “It’s your homework. asked me to do. And I said, ‘OK, she’s interested.’ “
The second time Sallam met Taher she was more comfortable and ready to learn, so they embarked on a series of one-on-one drama workshops together. “One of the things that I love is working with actors – and non-actors in particular – so I worked with Karam for a few months and she got involved,” says Sallam. “And I was testing this. Does she arrive on time? Does she cancel other stuff with her friends? It was a good sign. His commitment, his passion and his dedication were there.
For Taher, who had attended the audition almost on a whim, it was a difficult few months of intensive learning. “After I auditioned, I went back and said to my mom, ‘No, that won’t happen. I don’t think they liked my audition or my acting, ”she says. “I was so nervous and shy at first and it was a long journey to be honest. It was Darin who was with me all the time, bringing me into character, helping me to reach that point where I was comfortable. I felt like I had to open up to Darin, and I did. I trusted him so much. I opened up to her more than to anyone else, which helped me express all my anger, feelings and emotions so that I could finish a scene just the way she wanted.
His most difficult scenes were two separations, says Taher. The first from her father (Ashraf Barhom), the second from her best friend Farida (Tala Gammoh). However, the film also includes scenes rarely discussed in regional cinema, including urination and Farha’s first period.
“I wanted to show these things because it’s natural and that’s what would happen to you or me if we were in his shoes,” says Sallam. “I wasn’t afraid to do it, I was afraid Karam wouldn’t feel comfortable, so I had to work with her and made sure she was comfortable with the team and that there was no one in the room except me and the camera. “
A lot of people didn’t want “Farha” done, Sallam says. The reasons why will become immediately obvious to anyone looking at it. Although the events of 1948 are covered in countless books, poems, articles, and documentaries, the Nakba is rarely shown in fictionalized cinematic form.
“I’m not afraid to tell the truth. We have to do it because movies live and we die, ”Sallam says. “That’s why I decided to make this film. Not because I am political, but because I am faithful to the story that I have heard.