Ahistorical Fiction Passing for Fact at TIME

Farha is a film by a Jordanian director of Palestinian descent, Darin Sallam, that purports to be about the Palestinian “nakba,” that is, the “catastrophe” that resulted from the failed attempt in 1948 to prevent the Jews from establishing the state of Israel. In a Q&A at the Toronto Palestine Film Festival in September of this year, Sallam made clear that the film is a work of fiction. After circulating in film festivals, Farha was recently released on Netflix, and as a result is now generating media coverage, in, among other places, TIME.

The moderator of the Toronto film festival discussion, beginning at about 11 minutes into the video, addresses Sallam: “it’s a fiction film on the Nakba … why in fiction format?” Sallam responds, “why in fiction format, because this is what I prefer to make as a director, as a film director …. fiction usually is more emotional, and I wanted to … deliver emotion and to communicate in an emotional way with people.” (Thanks to Israellycool for locating the video.)

In response to a question beginning at about 30 minutes, Sallam makes clear that the only thing that, according to her, is true about the story in Farha is that decades ago, her mother, as a child, met another girl who told her that she had been locked in a room during the 1948 war (though even this much is merely a story and is unfalsifiable). Sallam said that she tried to find the girl in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, but “when I couldn’t find the girl, I decided that this is a good thing, she is of course an old woman now; I decided that this is a good thing because I needed some distance and to have the space to create some fiction.”

And in response to a question at the 25 minute mark, Sallam also makes clear that she intentionally attempted to portray the Israeli soldiers in as malevolent a way as possible. Ynet reports, “the film notably includes a shocking 15-minute scene during which Israeli soldiers massacre a family of Palestinian refugees, including a one-year-old baby.” At the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, Sallam describes her decision to have the soldier abandon the baby to die slowly rather than shoot the baby: “an uglier way of dying … [and] I’m sure that in the next house, right after, he must have killed another baby.”

Others noted that the film makes an equivalency between IDF soldiers and Nazis, which is antisemitic according to the widely-accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition. One group of activists wrote, “The film presents the IDF soldiers as bloodthirsty monsters who amuse themselves with the death of helpless innocents.” This description is entirely consistent with Sallam’s own comments.

Yet, a December 7 article in the “World” section of TIME by Armani Syed calls this fictional film that depicts Israelis as “bloodthirsty monsters” a “true” story: “Set in an unnamed Palestinian village, Farha tells the true story of a 14-year-old girl during the creation of Israel in 1948.” (“Why the Director of Netflix’s Farha Depicted the Murder of a Palestinian Family.”)  

This sentence is part of the introduction to an interview by Syed of Sallam. During the interview, Sallam makes clear that even the title character’s name, “Farha,” is made up. So why does TIME call it a “true story”?

There are journalistic missteps in the interview as well. For example, Sallam makes the claim that there was an “invasion” by Israel in 1948. This is an ahistorical claim that Syed fails to correct – it was, of course, Sallam’s native Jordan, along with Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, that invaded. (How Israel – or the Haganah – could “invade” a territory they were already in is unclear.)

Sallam also tells Syed, “The Nakba is part of who we are and our identity as Palestinians. Again, I’m not a politician. I’m an artist. But what I can say is that my grandparents were forced into exile in 1948; my father was six months old then. They heard about a massacre near them so they took their stuff and left.”

It’s unclear precisely where or when this massacre is alleged to have occurred. But it’s been documented that stories about massacres by the Jewish forces were at best exaggerated. As CAMERA has noted before, in 1998, one resident of Deir Yassin (the site of one of the most famous of the alleged 1948 massacres) told the British Daily Telegraph,

The Arab radio talked of women being killed and raped, but this is not true… I believe that most of those who were killed were among the fighters and the women and children who helped the fighters. The Arab leaders committed a big mistake. By exaggerating the atrocities they thought they would encourage people to fight back harder. Instead they created panic and people ran away.

The same year (the 50th anniversary year of the event), a BBC documentary interviewed a Palestinian news editor who wrote a contemporaneous press release about Deir Yassin, and who admitted in the documentary that his 1948 report of the event had been falsified at the request of the Arab Higher Committee, “so the Arab armies will come to liberate Palestine from the Jews.’”

The TIME interviewer, however, did not seek any details from Sallam, or push back in any way on her claims.

Sallam further tells Syed that as research for the film, “I read many books like Ilan Pappé’s work on the ethnic cleansing of Palestine that I really recommend everyone to read.”

But Pappé himself has admitted that his writing is ideological and not objective; he has said that, “indeed the struggle is about ideology, not about facts. Who knows what facts are?” CAMERA has shown that on one occasion he fabricated a quote from David Ben-Gurion, and in a 2016 panel discussion, he showed himself as someone willing to promote falsehoods to further an anti-Israel agenda. Certainly, his accounts are far from authoritative and shouldn’t be promoted as such. But again, Syed says nothing to push back on those claims. 

Also missing from the TIME article is any mention of the background facts about the 1948 war. Although Syed asks Sallam, “Can you tell me more about the Nakba and the events that led up to it?” there is no mention of the actual cause of the war: the Arab rejection of the UN Partition Plan.

TIME’s labelling of the movie as a “true story,” as well as the other shortcomings in the interview with Darin Sallam, would not have been appropriate in the Entertainment section of a magazine, let alone in the news section. Truth may sometimes be stranger than fiction but, in ethical journalism, fiction must never be labeled true.

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