Psychological thrillers exploring mental illness and big pharma are never an easy genre to tackle, but Emirati-Lebanese director Hassiba Freiha and Kenton Freiha have immersed themselves in that world with a deft hand in their new feature ‘Farah’. , which will be released in cinemas in the United Arab Emirates on December 1.
The husband-wife director duo, who helmed and co-produced this thriller backed by UAE-based companies Knockout Productions and Intuitive Features, enjoyed its regional premiere on the red carpet at Vox Cinemas in the Mall of the Emirates on November 28. . ‘ is a film directed by an Emirati, produced by Emirati companies, and whose story is rooted in the reality of this region. It stars Lebanese pop star and actress Stephanie Atala and actor Majdi Machmouchi.
“After every screening, at least two or three people came up to us saying, ‘this is my story’…Last night after our premiere in Dubai, it was amazing when two old men came up to us and said, ‘this is my story’. literally my story’…I personally believe that we all suffer from mental health issues,” Kenton said in a joint interview with Hassiba.The pair previously worked together at the production company Abu Dhabi Entertainment TwoFour54.
“What surprised me was that it was two men who came to us and gave us their comments,” Hassiba said.
This Lebanese-Emirati filmmaker and writer shines the spotlight on Lina (Atala), a struggling pre-med student who returns to Lebanon from California after a nervous breakdown and recurring nightmares.
Lina’s strained and fractured relationship with her father, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, her troubled past over her missing mother (Hassiba), and the web of dark family secrets threaten to push Lina to the brink. The gripping thriller deals with a series of grim issues like trauma, intergenerational conflict and the dangers of taking pills, but it’s never gloomy.
“With movies about mental health, it can escalate to despair. But we really wanted to make sure there was hope and inspiration at the end of the film… As a writer, I wanted to find ways to translate that visually to the screen and behaviorally with the performances actors,” Hassiba said. As his wife and partner-in-crime Kenton pointed out, they were acutely aware that filmmaking is very much about the nature of the escape. Their intention was not to bog down their viewers.
“You have to give the audience something that is palatable, while exploring difficult topics. Keeping that balance and toeing that line is always very tricky… With ‘Farah,’ we’re trying to keep people on this journey where they’re inspired, educated, and still have an enjoyable, elusive experience,” Kenton said.
Filmed in Lebanon during COVID-19, their labor of love ‘Farah’ took three years to survive a global pandemic, the 2019 revolution in Beirut and new management. But they continued to persevere since their collective goal was to make a Lebanese film produced in the United Arab Emirates that meets international standards in terms of storytelling and production value.
“Our film is proof that the UAE is trying to bring a lot of Emirati talent to the fore… They want to prepare and train us, and I love that. their people, because what the UAE has done for us is wonderful,” Hassiba said, and rolling it out on the eve of the 51st UAE National Day was just gravy.
“I’m a hybrid Emirati and it’s like coming home. I grew up in the UAE and have spent so much time here…Over the past 35 years, I have always identified with this country and So it’s amazing that ‘Farah’ is coming out on the UAE National Day weekend. It wasn’t planned, but it’s a wonderful omen,” Hassiba said.
Her husband, who threw his weight behind this film from day one with Hassiba, is all for it. He thinks “Farah” will be emblematic of the new wave of Lebanese cinema fueled by good stories and cutting-edge production values.
“’Farah’ is the future of cinema… You can’t keep producing international stories and not attracting local audiences. It just doesn’t work… We need to create an audience base that can see their films speak to them in their own voice,” Kenton said.
Speaking of international flavor, pop legend Boy George – who has advocated for mental health – lent his vocals to the film’s theme song “Try To Remember” featuring Atala.
Hassiba drew this harrowing story from her own personal experience watching her loved ones struggling with ‘mental torment and medication’, the book ‘The Pill That Steals Lives’ and a few documentaries she has looked into. .
Like most movies that deal with mental health, “Farah” heavily retcons how doctors and people dealing with mental health issues see drugs as a panacea, instead of a wholesome approach.
“The drugs are super helpful in the short term, but it’s much more empowering for someone to walk away from them and rely on their own built-in mechanism to hear,” Hassiba said. Both believe that “drugs are like band-aids that offer short-term solutions.”
“As a crutch, meds are fantastic and a great tool to use. But relying on meds alone isn’t wise…I hope our little indie film changes perspectives. I hope we’re that little torch in a big dark forest,” Hassiba said.
They also hope that their film “Farah” will mark a new era in the classification of Lebanese films.
“Lebanese films are often categorized into two categories: either the elite arthouse that I massively respect, or this slapstick action film… But ‘Farah’ is an international film set in Lebanon. We are proud of it. It wasn’t like we had a skyrocketing budget, but we used our resources very well… We hope this film will show a generation of filmmakers what is possible from the United Arab Emirates,” Kenton said.
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“Farah” was released in cinemas in the United Arab Emirates on December 1.
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“The effort within the UAE to push good quality content is evident in ‘Farah’. Local cinemas like Vox and Grand have taken a huge gamble with us… The UAE has been very smart and strategic about the how they see the long-term growth of the film industry. They create this climate where they bring in well-established Western talent to work with the Emiratis. We live in a country that is confident in talking about national issues affecting women and mental health,” Kenton said.