TIFF 2021 Women Directors: Meet Darin J. Sallam – “Farha”
Darin J. Sallam is a Jordanian writer and director who has five award winning short films including “Still Alive,” “The Dark Outside,” and “The Parrot,” all of which received multiple awards and screened in internationally acclaimed film festivals worldwide. A Berlinale Talent 2021, Sallam is the recipient of the 2015 Film Prize of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the 2017 Artist in Residency Fellowship at La Cité Internationale des Arts, and the 2018 Global Media Makers Fellowship by Film Independent. She has been a jury member on several international film festivals, as well as being the co-founder and managing partner at TaleBox, a Jordanian production and training company based in Amman.
“Farha” will premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival on September 11. The fest is taking place September 9-18.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
DJS: “Farha” is a story about friendship, aspiration, separation, rite of passage, exile, survival, and liberation in the face of loss, all seen through the eyes of a young girl. It is a coming-of-age film that tackles issues of identity and exile.
It follows the journey of a 14-year-old girl who’s dream changes from seeking education in the city with her best friend to survival in Palestine in 1948.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
DJS: A young Palestinian girl was locked up by her father to protect her life and family honor during the catastrophic events of Al-Nakba in Palestine 1948. She eventually made it to Syria, where she met a girl with whom she shared her story. That girl grew up, started a family, and shared that story with her daughter. That daughter is me.
The remarkable setup of that young girl’s experience struck a chord inside of me, and “Farha” started to emerge. She stayed in my mind and I kept thinking of how she must have felt in that small dark room, especially since I have the same fear of the dark and tight places. A feeling of suffocation invaded me every time I remembered her. The urge to share her journey kept growing within me, gradually forming the story of “Farha.”
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
DJS: This girl’s harsh experience traveled over the years to reach me, and now it is time to share it with the world. I want them to live the journey of this young girl. I want them to see that it was a land with people and that they were living their lives experiencing good and bad moments until it was all interrupted.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
DJS: Directing actors has always been a main focal element and a great passion of mine. Working especially with child non-actors is a challenge I always love to take on, which is why I’ve been working on developing my own method or strategy to coach non-actors and prepare them to be in front of the camera.
With “Farha” specifically, I always knew that I needed to work so hard on whoever would play the main role, especially since we don’t have young actors/actresses in the Arab World. It was a long process that included one-on-one coaching sessions, acting workshops, and dialect trainings.
It was also challenging ensuring that “Farha” is able to carry the story and keep audiences engaged at all times, especially when the audience is left alone with her in the locked pantry, which is a significant part of the film. I was looking forward to staying inside the one room most of the film without boring the audience, and keeping them engaged.
The climactic scene towards the end of the film was a challenge: the exterior part was shot over four days, and it’s an intense scene of 15 pages with 10 actors, including two children, all with different acting backgrounds and experiences. Picking up the emotional state of the actors in these four days and keeping its momentum [was a priority]. The interior part on the other hand was shot in a duplicate of the room inside a studio.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
DJS: The film was funded through a scheme that combined development awards, local film funds, regional film funds, and co-production with Sweden — “Farha” is the first Jordanian/Swedish co-production on a feature length film — as well as financing and support from the private sector in Jordan and the region.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
DJS: I never tried to become a filmmaker. I just found myself making films. One day, I had a small story that I kept visualizing and felt the urge to take a camera and shoot it, so I found myself making my very first short film.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
DJS: Best Advice: Don’t conform. When you are a wildflower that grows naturally, embrace it and be your true self always.
Worst advice: “Always stick to the plan.” I think a plan and structure is always good but I also like to leave space for imagination or improvisation and try not to limit myself.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
DJS: I am always my harshest critic, but I also learnt that you need to embrace certain flaws. Flaws are beautiful and they’re part of perfection because they give individuality and meaning to everything we create. Always try to be original and don’t be afraid to [accept] your own flaws.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
DJS: “Boys Don’t Cry” by Kimberly Peirce because it’s a story that needed to be told. The acting was very convincing and it’s a daring film.
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
DJS: When COVID-19 forced the world to shutdown back in March 2020, we were in the midst of post-production for “Farha” and suddenly were unable to finish the film due to the lockdown. We tried to keep working with the restricted resources we could still access to advance the film as much as possible. I also had to travel to finish the sound mix as soon as borders opened after being closed for six months due to the pandemic, which was quite an adventure.
During the quarantine and when there was a pause on “Farha” for a while, I worked on a bible for a new series where I am one of its creators. It’s in the development phase now.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?
DJS: I think that negative stereotypes are starting to decrease due to some actors’ refusal to play these stereotypical roles, which took a long time to happen, mainly due to the lack of other opportunities. This started to change now since there is more awareness that these stereotypical roles are offensive.
To have inclusivity is to simply stop categorizing human beings and finally see them equally. This would lead to jobs being secured without having to check the box for a diversity quota but through equal opportunities for everyone qualified.
In “Farha,” inclusivity was a must. Fifty percent of positions were occupied by women, we had a Pan-Arab crew, and some positions were from outside of the Arab World. We made sure that everyone qualified for the position they were assuming. We make cinema to bring people together.