Cinefile: Art or Propaganda?
Mar 31, 2023 | Douglas Murray
Written and Directed by Darin Sallam; Starring: Karam Taher, Ashraf Barhom, Tala Gammoh; 91 mins; Netflix
What is the difference between art and propaganda? Well, among much else, propaganda tells you what to think. Art, meanwhile, is meant to teach you how to think – even to think for yourself. One result from that is that propaganda tells you that the world is simple, while art reflects the fact that the world is complex.
It’s not a comprehensive definition, but it was one that was constantly at the back of my mind as I watched the recent Netflix-released film Farha, which has received especially rave reviews in the Arab press. For instance, Al Jazeera celebrated this film being released on Netflix. In the words of the Qatari-owned news outlet, the film “depicts the horrors of the Nakba in 1948, when Israel achieved so-called ‘independence’ on Palestinian land by killing more than 10,000 Palestinians and destroying more than 500 villages. Fast forward 75 years and Israeli soldiers still do not need much help looking like murderers.” Thus does one of the world’s most propagandistic news sites write about one of the most propagandistic films I have seen in years.
As something of a binge-watcher, I had just finished the latest season of the similarly titled Israeli series Fauda and was looking for new content. Farha has received some rave reviews, and it is interesting that this – an Arabic-language film with subtitles – should have made its way onto the world’s most popular on-demand streaming service. Netflix is famously hungry for new content to keep its millions of subscribers hooked, and foreign-language films do sometimes appear on the platform. Not that they are always well received (as those who remember the Cuties controversy will recall).
The problem for Farha as a work of art is that it is not only inaccurate, and propagandistic, it is almost unbelievably simplistic. The film (which on a side-note is one of the slowest-moving films I have seen) starts with portrayals of “Palestine” before the dreaded creation of the State of Israel. To say that the depiction is saccharine is to severely understate things. The camera lens practically has Vaseline smeared over it. It concentrates on long drawn-out depictions of a young Palestinian girl, Farha, and her friends in an utterly Edenic land. Most of the day is spent sitting on swings, feeling the land’s innocent breeze rustle through the luscious trees. Occasionally time is taken out from this activity in order for characters to wander over to a fresh-water spring or waterfall and bathe in the clear-blue waters of this rich desert land.
To the extent that there is any suspense in this portion of the film, it relates to the fact that Farha wishes to attend school in the nearest city to her village. Her father, by contrast, thinks that she should stay at home and get married. Eventually the stern yet kind-hearted father gives his daughter the permission she wishes for. Thus do we get both the popular current-day motif of the girl who wishes to improve herself and the resolution of the only minor trouble that exists in this Edenic world.
The tiniest rustles of trouble emerge. In one scene we see British soldiers withdrawing, and the children happily throwing rocks at the dastardly Brits. This is really all the build-up we get to the possibility that all will not be well.
For soon enough the Jews arrive. At this point, the film turns both to its most dramatic moment and the least dramatic treatment imaginable. As war comes to the village, Farha’s father locks her in the food store cupboard of their courtyard house, promising that she will be safe there and that he will come back for her. In the hands of a more competent director this could have worked. The person in the midst of great events who cannot understand what is going on. But all we have is endless footage of Farha sitting in a darkened food store while noises go on around her. The dramatic non-build-up is interminable.
Only one thing breaks the non-tension which is when the Jews enter the courtyard of Farha’s family home. By this point Farha has found a way to look through a crack in the storehouse door. The Jews search the house looking for weapons, but inexplicably do not bother to search beyond the very large and prominent locked door from the other side of which Farha peers out.
Perhaps this is because if they were to do so the main climax of the film would be negated. The climax (spoiler alert) is this: The dastardly Jews line up the Palestinian family against a wall and for no reason form a firing squad and kill them all. One of those shot is a Palestinian mother who we have just seen giving birth. Her newborn child is not killed by the firing squad so the lead Jew orders one of the junior Jews to kill the baby.
To show that the Jews are not good people – in case this is not yet clear enough to the viewers – the lead Jew tells the junior Jew not to waste a bullet on the baby but instead to crush the baby to death with his rifle or foot. The younger Jew tries to kill the baby with his foot but in the end covers him over and leaves him to die alone. The rest of the film is Farha wandering through the wasteland that has been left behind, including the dead baby left out by the Jews to die.
I started to make a list of things about which the viewer in this film will be left entirely ignorant. These include – but are not limited to – the fact that the War of Independence of 1948 was not simply an ethnic genocide carried out by Jews against Palestinians but a war of very nearly all against all. Not only Palestinians against Israelis, but a war of all of the neighbouring states on the newly created country. Although we get that one glimpse of Mandate-era British troops retreating, we have no sense of Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian, and other troops advancing. We have no sign that Palestinians or other Arabs were involved in any atrocities or even fighting at this time.
The film fails as a work of entertainment because it is so un-entertaining. But it fails as a work of art because it is so artless. So what is it doing on Netflix?
My suspicion is that the platform has taken a certain amount of criticism because of the number of Israeli-made productions that have appeared on the platform. Dramas like Fauda have been among the most popular series of their kind on the platform – something that has drawn a certain amount of negative attention in the Arab press. Though just consider the difference between what Fauda does and what Farha does.
Does Fauda show all Palestinians to be evil child-killers? No, absolutely not. The series repeatedly shows Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, and others who want the best for their people and advocate and work for peace. Does Fauda show all Israelis as suffering, put-upon victims and people who are morally untainted? No, it shows people at all levels of society who are morally complex, torn, and self-questioning.
Would Fauda even work as drama if it showed Israel without the Arabs as the sort of sepia-tinted Eden as Farha portrays the land without Jews as being? Absolutely not. And in that comparison you see the true ugliness of what Netflix has done here.
The platform has clearly fallen for the idea that it must balance out Israeli productions with Palestinian or Arab productions. In the process, it has forgotten the fact that the Israeli-made productions just happen to be made by Israelis. The fact that they are Israeli-made is a production detail, not the point. Such productions are not propaganda films arguing a one-sided pro-Israeli case.
They are not, for instance, one-dimensional cartoons depicting Arabs as evil, sadistic child-killers. Yet that is precisely the “balance” that Netflix has chosen to apply against Israel in the belief that this creates some kind of level playing field. It doesn’t.
It simply highlights the differences not just between one side in a conflict and the other but the difference between bigoted sermonising and entertainment, between propaganda and art.