A still from Lebanese film 'Farah'
A still from Lebanese film 'Farah' Image Credit: Supplied

Psychological thrillers exploring mental illness and big pharma are never an easy genre to take on, but Emirati-Lebanese director Hassiba Freiha and Kenton Freiha have plunged into that world with a deft hand in their new feature film ‘Farah’, releasing in UAE cinemas on December 1.

The home-grown husband-wife director duo, who helmed and co-produced this thriller backed by UAE-based companies Knockout Productions and Intuitive Features, enjoyed its regional red carpet premiere at Vox Cinemas in Mall of the Emirates on November 28. 'Farah' is a film led by an Emirati, produced by UAE companies, and has a story that’s steeped in this region’s reality. It stars Lebanese pop star and actress Stephanie Atala and actor Majdi Machmouchi.

“After every screening, at least two or three people have come up to us, saying: ‘that’s my story’ … Last night after our premiere in Dubai, it was amazing when two senior men came up to us and said: ‘this is literally my story’ … I personally believe that we all suffer with mental health issues,” said Kenton in a joint interview with Hassiba. The couple previously worked together at the Abu Dhabi entertainment production company TwoFour54.

“What surprised me was that it was two men who came up to us and gave this feedback,” said Hassiba.

This Lebanese-Emirati filmmaker and writer shines the spotlight on Lina (Atala), a troubled pre-med student who returns home to Lebanon from California following a nervous breakdown and recurring nightmares.

Lina’s fraught and fractured relationship with her father, who works in the pharma industry, her troubled past about her missing mother (Hassiba), and the web of dark family secrets threatens to push Lina off the brink. The gripping thriller deals with a raft of grim issues like trauma, intergenerational conflict, and the perils of pill-popping, but it’s never bleak.

“With films about mental health, it can spiral down to despair. But we really wanted to make sure that there hope and inspiration at the end of the film … As a writer, I wanted to find ways that could translate it visually on screen and behaviourally with the performances from actors,” said Hassiba. As her spouse and partner-in-crime Kenton pointed out, they were keenly aware that filmmaking rides a lot on being escapist in nature. Their intent was not to bog down their viewers.

“You have got to give the audience something that’s palatable, while still exploring difficult subjects. Keeping that balance and to toe that line is always very tricky … With ‘Farah’, we try to keep people on that journey where they are inspired, educated and still having an enjoyable, escapist experience,” said Kenton.

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A still from 'Farah', set in Lebanon, out in cinemas on December 1

Shot in Lebanon during COVID-19, their labour of love ‘Farah’ took three years to complete and has survived a global pandemic, the 2019 revolution in Beirut, and a new leadership. But they still soldiered on since their collective aim was to make a UAE-produced Lebanese film of 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 forefront … They want to groom and train us, and I love that. I wish every country in the world would put so much focus on their people because what UAE has done for us is wonderful,” said Hassiba. And rolling it out on the eve of 51st UAE National Day was just gravy.

“I am a hybrid Emirati and this is like coming home. I have grown up in UAE and have so much time here … In the last 35 years, I have always identified with this country and so it’s amazing that ‘Farah’ is releasing on UAE National Day weekend. It wasn’t planned, but it’s a wonderful omen,” said Hassiba.

Her husband, who has thrown his weight behind this film from day one along with Hassiba, couldn’t agree more. He believes ‘Farah’ will be emblematic of the new wave of Lebanese cinema powered by good stories and cutting-edge production values.

“’Farah’ is the future of cinema … You can’t keep pumping out international stories and not appealing to a local audience. It just isn’t working … We need to create an audience base that can see their films speaking to them in their own voices,” said Kenton.

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Hassiba and Kenton Freiha-Oxley directed 'Farah' and it's their labour of love Image Credit: Supplied

Speaking of international flavour, pop legend Boy George — who has advocated for mental health — has lent his vocals to the movie’s theme song ‘Try To Remember’ along with Atala.

Hassiba culled out this poignant story from her own personal experience of observing those close to her struggling with “mental torment and are on medication”, the book ‘The Pill That Steals Lives’ and a few documentaries that she pored over.

Like most films that deal with mental health, ‘Farah’ comes down heavily on how doctors and those facing mental health issues who look towards medication as a panacea, instead of a wholesome approach.

“Medication is super helpful in the short term, but it’s much more empowering for somebody to move away from them and rely on their own in-built mechanism to hear,” said Hassiba. Both believe that “medicines are like band-aid plasters that offer short-term solutions.”

“As a crutch, medicines are fantastic and a great tool to use. But just to rely on medications isn’t wise … I hope our small independent film will hopefully change perspectives. I hope we are this little torch in a big, dark forest,” said Hassiba.

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Lebanese pop idol and actress Stephanie Atala dives deep into her troubled side in 'Farah' Image Credit: Supplied

They also hope that their film ‘Farah’ will mark a new era in how Lebanese films are classified.

“Lebanese films are often pigeonholed into two areas — either elite art house that I massively respect or that slapstick, action movie … But ‘Farah’ is an international film that happens to be set in Lebanon. We are proud of it. It wasn’t like we had a skyrocketing budget, but we used our resources really well … We hope this film shows a generation of filmmakers of what’s possible to be made out of the UAE,” said Kenton.

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‘Farah’ is out in UAE cinemas on December 1.

“The effort within the UAE to push good quality content is evident in ‘Farah’. Local cinemas like Vox and Grand have taken a massive gamble with us … The UAE has been very smart and strategic about how it looks at the long-term growth of the filmmaking sector. They are creating this climate where they are bringing in well-established Western talents to work with Emiratis. We live in a country that’s self-assured to talk about national issues affecting women and mental health,” said Kenton.