Palestinian Directors Farah Nabulsi, Darin J. Sallam on Difficulties Telling Palestinian Stories, Hopes to ‘Preserve Our History’ Through Film

Filmmakers Farah Nabulsi and Darin J. Sallam recently came together to discuss how ongoing violence in Gaza has impacted the Palestinian creative community, the hardships they’ve endured telling their stories, concerns over Hollywood censorship and hopes that film can “preserve” Palestinian history for the Muslim Girl Code podcast‘s debut episode “Will Storytelling Save Palestine?”

In a conversation with founder Amani Al-Khatahtbeh for the podcast’s first Ramadan episode, Nabulsi and Sallam shared how their identities as Palestinian women have influenced the stories they spotlight, and whether identity or gender has been a barrier for them in the film industry.

Nabulsi, a British-Palestinian filmmaker whose recent works include the Oscar-nominated short “The Present” and “The Teacher,” notes that the difficulties she has faced more often have been due to independent cinema being a challenge in itself and that the stories she wants to tell are Palestinian and set in Palestine — instead of she herself being Palestinian.

“Making it in independent cinema, regardless of whether you are Palestinian or not, is extremely difficult and hard,” Nabulsi says in the interview, adding that the act of indie filmmaking is “an endurance test” especially in a male-dominated industry, but she has ultimately learned “how to maneuver” through those elements.

“I am British-Palestinian, but even as a Palestinian, that’s never been an issue for me; it’s more that the stories I’m telling are Palestinian stories set in Palestine,” she continues. “You have a big majority of the film industry that isn’t necessarily particularly excited or interested in supporting films on that subject, whether it be from the development stage to the production stage, or to the distribution stage. And I know that [reality] going into every film I make — and that’s okay. That’s self-inflicted because I am choosing to tell those particular stories set in that place on that subject. So I go in with my eyes wide open.”

Sallam, who is Jordanian and Palestinian, says that while working on her 2021 film “Farha,” she faced struggles not so much because of her Palestinian identity but because of the content of the film.

“Farha,” Jordan’s international feature Oscar entry for the 95th Academy Awards, is set during the Nakba of 1948, and centers on a 14-year-old Palestinian girl named Farha as she watches catastrophe consume her home. Israeli forces enter her town as part of a military action that displaced more than 700,000 Palestinians.

“With financing the film, one of the reasons why it was really difficult is that people, individuals and organizations were terrified to associate their names with a Nakba film. They were so scared. But, also, another reason [was] that, according to them, Palestine is not trendy — Syria is,” Sallam recounts, noting the film was written in 2016 and shot in 2019. “To them, it was like,’ ‘Make it a Syrian girl now. Syria is more fashionable.'”

Both Sallam and Nabulsi mentioned feeling their films were the recipients of targeted harassment online when they initially debuted.

“The climax in the struggle of ‘Farha’s” journey was just before the release of the film on Netflix. It was the same time when the film was nominated to represent Jordan in the Oscars race, and when the Israeli government launched this attack and this campaign against the film to harm it and to lower the rating on IMDb,” Sallam says.

Nabulsi adds that her film “The Present,” which follows a father and his daughter in the West Bank as he shops for a wedding anniversary gift for his wife, experienced a similar scenario on IMDb.

“It was like all these wonderful ratings from people, and then at once, a whole bunch of 1 ratings just appeared overnight — loads of them,” Nabulsi adds.

The two also discussed how ongoing violence in Gaza, which has resulted in over 30,000 deaths so far, has affected them both personally and professionally, as well as their shared concerns over rising censorship in Hollywood when creatives speak up in support of a ceasefire.

“I think with October 7th and the following first few weeks, there was a knee jerk reaction in some ways that wasn’t necessary. It was led by pure outrage, emotion, anger and even elements of revenge,” Nabulsi says. “Unfortunately, a number of people obviously were on the receiving end of that. And that is absolutely wrong. And in some ways, ever since, they’ve been vindicated for anything they might have said in that time. So it’s a shame that they had to pay that price, which was unfair in the first place.”

Nablusi continues that she has since been “immersed in grief” over the current crisis faced by Palestinians, and has had a hard time focusing on her work.

“I’m forced to focus on ‘The Teacher,’ because it’s my current existing project that is in the process of its release, so I can’t abandon that. But, it feels ridiculous releasing it while this cruel massacre and deliberately inflicted humanitarian crisis is playing out on our screens. At the same time, I’ve never been more proud to be a Palestinian, and I feel so proud to have made this film. It’s a deeply human story that is basically set in this violent, brutal, unjust reality that has been endured by Palestinians for decades, that has arrived at a very crucial juncture in the discourse on Palestine. And I feel actually really grateful that I can start to share this film at this moment in time. For me, this is my cinema of resistance at this moment.”

Sallam emphasizes how cinema can be an “important medium” for educating and creating awareness — which she finds essential work amid a time of mass suffering for Palestinians.

“As filmmakers, carrying these voices and stories of the Palestinians to the screen is crucial to maintain our existence because it’s a powerful form of resistance. For example, with ‘Farha,’ it created awareness in a way I didn’t expect, [so much so] that people would be leaving the theater, googling Nakba, learning about Nakba,” Sallam says. “It’s how we preserve our history and our culture. It’s just our duty to open the world’s eyes through our art and through what we can do and what we’re good at.”

When looking towards the future, both for what lies ahead for Palestinians as well as their work which has often uplifted their stories, Nabulsi hopes “we can actually see an end to this oppression and injustice and ultimately reach a place of liberation” and future films by Palestinians can include “more hopeful themes and stories and heal in some ways.”

Nabulsi and Sallam also emphasize the importance for the film industry as a whole to “be courageous and be visionary and to really support these stories.”

“It’s killing me to see artists being afraid, and this is why I mentioned being courageous, because as an artist, you need to have humanity,” Sallam adds. “It’s not fighting for Palestine only; it’s fighting for humanity, for justice, and for basic human rights. The Palestinian cause is not political; it’s a humane cause. And this is why I ask [artists] to be on the right side of history.”

Listen to the full conversation with Nabulsi and Sallam on the Muslim Girl Code podcast.

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