Jesus fucking Christ.
In the absolute silence that followed the end of this film, an old woman sitting behind me said to her friend, “That is the most terrifying film I have ever seen”. She’s not wrong. Think Come And See vibes.
And the beginning of this film is so sunshiney and lovely, you’d never believe it was going to get so bad. Even knowing that it’s set during the time of Al Nakba, I didn’t expect it to go to the depths it did.
Farha is a 14-year-old girl who is desperate to go to school in the big city. Her father is mayor of a small Palestinian village, and he’s torn between his daughter’s obvious passion for learning, and the thought that keeping her close to home might be safer in these uncertain times. There is such a warmth between the two, a relationship of real love, you find yourself quickly invested in them. Farha’s cousin visits from the big city and they share their hopes of living together as sisters if Farha’s enrollment goes ahead. The film really takes time to establish Farha’s whole world; the green, leafy fig groves, the songs the girls sing, the boy who has a crush on her, her family, her friends, the possibility of marriage and the social life of the community.
The whole world is so fleshed out, that’s why I assumed that even when Al Nakba starts, we would see her travel with and try to keep safe this large cast of characters. But that’s not what happens. The film is based on the real experiences of a woman who survived the Catastrophe. And what happens is Farha refuses to flee and stays by her father’s side. He locks her in a storeroom in the courtyard, promising to return when the shooting stops. And she waits. And she waits. And she waits.
By following Farha’s story as one person living through these horrific events, we are seeing the Catastrophe through a keyhole, both metaphorically and literally. When she is first put inside, I assumed it would only be until nightfall or even a day or so. I thought to myself, “Ah, great way to save on budget! You don’t have to see the bombing and the tanks and the shootings, you can just hear them.” But this is because I underestimated the horror of the situation.
It actually reminded me of Slaughterhouse Five, when people go inside a building, and when they come out, the world has ended. Above the birds circle and say poo-tee-weet. From her place in this claustrophobic entombment, she bears witness to the massacre of innocents and the attempt to erase her people. And with no one she can safely call for help, how will she ever get out?
I’ve seen films telling the story of survivors before, movies like The Cut based on a survivor of the Armenian genocide, and all of them involve travel and movement, escape and getting way. And as horrifying as those stories are, there is some relief as a viewer to know you are leaving those things behind. With Farha, you just have to sit in it, and listen and look as the world ends.