Fertile Ground for Story and Politics: Filmmaker Darin Sallam

Author ········· Anne Haddad
Published ······ Online, Nov 2014
Section ·······  Culture

‘The Dark Outside' (2012) film stills courtesy of Darin Sallam

The skill of the filmmaker is in the deft touch of storytelling that penetrates our psyches. The narrative simultaneously diverts our attention from politics and then brings us face to face with it. The revelations expand our brains and maybe even our hearts, if it all works the way it’s supposed to. Jordanian filmmaker Darin Sallam embraces this notion and is an emerging director to watch for, with her first feature film in the works and her latest short film “The Dark Outside” gaining attention in the international festival circuit, including Cannes in 2013. The film was screened this past week in London at the Aan Korb Film and Documentary Festival, presented by BBC News in partnership with the British Council.

“Everything is political,” Sallam said during an interview from her home in Amman. Even a love story. If the girl is rich and the boy is poor, politics will affect their future. She doesn’t go looking for a political message however, she looks for a good story, and the one in “The Dark Outside” resonated with her. She had a childhood experience similar to the main character Nina in the short film.

In just over 12 minutes, the film tells the story of a schoolgirl on the cusp of adolescence. Nina still embellishes her spelling test with drawings of butterflies and flowers while also spelling the actual words perfectly in her English class. The only word we see her misspell is “enemy” – its meaning not one she has absorbed – though it’s on the horizon.

Nina is in nearly every way a compliant child and student, until she commits the unconsciously subversive act of painting a bright and cheery scene onto an unsightly, peeling wall in her gloomy school. A poster portraying il ra’ees - the leader of her unnamed country - hangs throughout the hallways and classrooms, including next to Nina’s whimsical nature scene. She has painted a yellow smile onto the leader’s stern visage. In subtle ways, Sallam makes it clear that Nina’s act is genuine rather than mockery: she wants, literally and figuratively, to put a smile on the man’s face.

Sallam skillfully builds the tension-filled climax when the schoolmaster, who is not amused, interrogates and admonishes Nina, telling her this disrespectful act will embarrass the school, her mother, and “everybody.” It’s a heavy load for a little kid, and just as the schoolmaster lays it on her like a lead apron, he asks Nina to tell him who put her up to it. He finds it hard to believe such a little girl could be so dangerous. He places both of his hands on her face, ostensibly in an avuncular way, but it feels menacing, like he could just as easily grab her by the ears. It is a powerful scene that unfolds so smoothly and efficiently that it takes longer to describe it than to watch it.

Nina’s resilience, courage, and expressiveness come from within and through her friendship with a classmate, Atusa. They sustain each other. Nina finds her fear of the dark vanquished and her sensibilities intact, even if she must wash her art off the walls for now.

Nina is a girl in a girls’ school, but Sallam says her film is not unique to the experience of girls. In fact, nothing draws attention to any difference between the way girls or boys would be treated. “I could have made this film with boys, in a boys’ school, and it would be exactly the same. No difference,” she said, adding that the heavy-handed schoolmaster would have been just as menacing to a boy.

From Kuwait to Jordan

Sallam grew up in Kuwait, then made her own way back to her parents’ country to study film in Aqaba and Amman. She wanted to be a filmmaker before she began her studies, but her parents needed some convincing that she was serious about it. Driven and ambitious, she pursued awards, sponsors, and mentors. The resulting recognition – and her persistent drive – convinced her parents to support her passion. Sallam has continued to live and work in Jordan, which has given her a more welcoming and supportive infrastructure.

“In Kuwait, they want Kuwaitis to make films,” Sallam said. Jordan is her home, and where she has come of age as a filmmaker. She graduated from the Applied Science University in Amman, and earned her MFA degree at the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts in Aqaba. Now living in Amman, she has made films, friends, and inroads throughout the Arab world and beyond.

Influence of Iranian Cinema

“In general, Iranian cinema is very inspiring and very realistic for me,” Sallam said. “I once was a judge at a short-film festival in Italy, and I could not stop myself from choosing the Iranian film. I was really worried that it was a very personal opinion - but when the other jury members chose the same film, I [was] relieved.”

She names Iranian director Asghar Farhadi as a filmmaker whose work she loves, along with several others she admires, but does not believe her style has been shaped by any one director’s influence...yet. She is currently working on the treatment for a feature-length project, and for this giant step, she hopes to gain wisdom, experience or advice from a filmmaker she admires. “I was hoping that I can ask someone like Asghar Farhadi to help [with] my screenplay-writing or by being a consultant,” Sallam said. “I might try to ask him when I finish the treatment.”

Love, Conflict, and Politics

Sallam’s project, under the working title “Farha,” is to be a period piece set in 1948 Jerusalem, fertile ground for story and politics. Farha, the main character of the film, is based on a real young girl and her story. “I want to make this film because I want to see what happened in 1948 from Farha's point of view - that the only thing she was thinking of at that time was her wedding,” Sallam said.

The ambitious project – as yet not even submitted for funding - means enough to Sallam that she is summoning the patience and humility to do it justice, so it may be a while before “Farha” is completed. Sallam has no intention of going dark in the meantime, however. “I am still in early stages [with] ‘Farha,’ developing the treatment I have, and I was thinking that this is a big production because it is a period film and it needs a lot of work. So if I find a great, [and lighter] script that I love [in the meantime],I will do it while the‘Farha’ script is being cooked.”

Anne Haddad is a journalist based in Baltimore, Maryland. She developed a love of film early from her Lebanese mother, who from childhood would save her piasters and lira to spend at the cinema in Haifa and Beirut. As a reporter for The Baltimore Sun for 10 years, she covered everything from city government to agriculture, and currently divides her time between medical journalism and writing about the arts.