In an early scene in “Miral,” the new film by artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel opening March 25, a Palestinian activist named Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass) comes across a ragtag group of about 50 children in Jerusalem’s Old City, many of them crying, trembling, dirty, barefoot, their hair matted and faces traumatized. The oldest is a girl of around 12, who explains that, the night before, the children had barely escaped a fiery rampage that destroyed their homes. They are alone, hungry and terrified.
It’s April 1948, before the establishment of the State of Israel, and the stunned Husseini, an educated woman from a prominent Jerusalem family, soon learns that the children are survivors of an attack on Deir Yassin by Jewish paramilitary groups. Her response is to found a school and orphanage for children displaced by the fighting, a place that, over the course of the film, grows to accommodate thousands of girls.
The movie goes on to tell the story of several generations of Palestinian women, notably Miral (Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire”), who, in the late 1970s, arrives at the school after her mother, an alcoholic and victim of childhood sexual abuse, commits suicide. A decade later, the teenage Miral becomes radicalized while teaching in a refugee camp during the First Intifada; in one scene, she is arrested in the middle of the night for associating with activists, then brutally beaten while being interrogated in an Israeli prison.
In another sequence, a female terrorist attempts to place a bomb in an Israeli movie theater, while the rape scene from Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” plays on the screen. The sequence serves as a metaphor not only for the rape of Miral’s mother — which propels the woman’s suicide — but also for the protagonist’s perception of the plight of the Palestinian people, Schnabel, the film’s director, said.
“Miral” is essentially an art film based on an autobiographical novel by Schnabel’s girlfriend, the Palestinian-born, Italian TV journalist Rula Jebreal. Schnabel, 59, is among the most successful painters in the contemporary art world, and the most prominent artist ever to successfully segue into filmmaking. His “Before Night Falls” (2000) earned actor Javier Bardem an Academy Award nomination, while “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007), received four Oscar nods, including one for Schnabel in the directing category.
In 2007, Schnabel’s art was celebrated in an exhibition at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. “There were 40 paintings that I actually installed without building temporary walls, so you could just see modern paintings among the frescoes in these giant rooms,” he said.
He met Jebreal at the show’s opening, and initially assumed she was Indian — she in fact bears a striking resemblance to the Indian beauty Freida Pinto, who plays the lead in “Miral” — but was surprised to learn she was, in fact, Palestinian and an Israeli citizen.
Jebreal, in a separate interview, recalled their first encounter: “I don’t know if I would say he had a knee-jerk reaction, but his expression changed from smiling to almost a tension, like he had never seen a Palestinian before,” she said. “So I asked, ‘Are you scared or something?’ And he replied, ‘Should I be scared?’ — that is how we started talking.”
But the artist and writer clicked; and when she subsequently sent him her novel, “Miral,” he was moved and heartbroken by her story.
Sometime during the transformation of the memoir into the film, Schnabel left his second wife, the Spanish Basque actress and model Olatz López Garmendia, who appears as a physical therapist in “Diving Bell”; he and Jebreal now live together, and it seems that his passion for his film and its underlying issues is tied, at least in part, into his passion for Jebreal.
It is the star power of the backers of “Miral” that make its release an event worth noting. The other major player behind this historical drama is Harvey Weinstein, the brash chairman of the Weinstein Co., an inventor of modern independent cinema who last month triumphed at the Oscars with “The King’s Speech,” which swept the awards and won for best picture. Weinstein, who, like Schnabel, is Jewish, has acknowledged that “Miral” is “pro-Palestinian,” but has vociferously defended the picture from some prominent Jewish leaders who see it as anti-Israel.
In the weeks leading up to “Miral’s” release, some mainstream Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, condemned the drama as agitprop and, in particular, denounced its U.S. premiere at the United Nations earlier this month. “The film has a clear political message which portrays Israel in a highly negative light,” AJC executive director David Harris wrote in a letter to the U.N. “Permit me to ask why the President of the General Assembly would wish to associate himself … with such a blatantly one-sided event.”
In a telephone interview from New York last week, Schnabel said he understands why some Jews have condemned his movie — some without even having seen the film: “It comes out of fear,” he said. “The fear that the Holocaust occurred, that ‘we have been [decimated], and we don’t want it to happen again’; that ‘these people, the Palestinians, are against us having a State of Israel, and we must fight for that, no matter what happens.’ But I don’t believe that’s true. I believe a Jewish homeland in Israel is superimportant, and a great thing, but we must have empathy; we have to be sensitive. I don’t think it’s a very encouraging way to look at people, as ‘us and them.’ It isn’t us and them. We are all human beings. And what is good for the Palestinians is also good for the Israelis.”
Among complaints leveled against “Miral” is that it presents Israeli soldiers as one-dimensional villains – but Schnabel doesn’t perceive the filmmaker’s job as a political balancing act. “Just as if I were painting a portrait, I’m dealing with what is in the frame that is related to Rula, and to Miral’s point of view,” he said. “It’s not from my omniscient point of view of a 59-year-old Jewish guy who’s got all these different facts where I have to explain who attacked whom in the Six-Day War. It’s Miral’s family history as it was told to her, and as it was lived by her. And that’s the power of the story. I can’t do this inexhaustible summation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are just too many stories.”
Not all the filmmaker’s critics are Jewish. “Others have attacked me because the film isn’t pro-Palestinian enough,” Schnabel said. “I really can’t believe I’m even talking about this because ‘Miral’ is a movie about a girl and her family,” he added. “If the movie had been set in Afghanistan, we wouldn’t even be on the telephone today.”
Not that Schnabel is without his own opinion. “When I shot the movie and lived and worked in Israel and in Palestine, I was pretty ashamed of certain situations that I witnessed,” he said. “I felt it was like apartheid over there, and that’s very disappointing. There’s democracy for Jewish people in Israel, but I don’t think there’s democracy for Palestinian people. … When I see a kid with peyos and a yarmulke throwing a rock into a Palestinian home and screaming at them, that doesn’t seem to be the Jewish way to me.”
What’s not yet determined is how the larger public will respond. After screenings at the Toronto and Venice film festivals last year, reviews of “Miral” ranged from mixed to scathing. The Guardian said that Schnabel had gotten into “a terrible muddle” bogged down by too many characters and tangents, and thus was “unable to tell the heroine’s story in a clear and compelling way.”
Variety opined that Miral herself emerges as “a bland totem of hope, rather than a compelling character” and that “at a certain point, the characters begin speaking almost exclusively in sound bites.”
Since then, Schnabel reportedly has trimmed 13 minutes from the film, with Weinstein’s help, in order to “stay with the characters instead of the topic,” Schnabel told the Los Angeles Times. But however the drama is received upon its theatrical release, any film by Schnabel tackling the Middle East conflict is bound to be perceived as culturally significant.
Schnabel burst onto the art scene as a major figure in the 1980s, achieving international recognition for his exuberant, large-scale paintings set on canvases adorned with broken ceramic plates. He also made a splash for his larger-than-life personality (wearing his signature pajamas in public, for example; comparing his own genius to Picasso’s; and his extravagant lifestyle and circle of movie-star friends, such as Mickey Rourke).
In the interview, Schnabel was not withholding: “Do you think I’m crazy?” he asked of his passionate defense of “Miral.” Schnabel declared that he has never made art or films for the money; and he repeatedly — and intensely — asked whether a reporter knew of the Deir Yassin massacre, the catalyst for the founding of the orphanage where his lover, the movie’s screenwriter Jebreal, was raised. And as for the observant Jewish settlers who remain in the occupied territories, he heatedly said, “They’re from Brooklyn — what are they doing over there?”
Schnabel — who is also from Brooklyn — said he knew almost nothing about Middle East politics before meeting Jebreal in 2007 at the Palazzo Venezia, the former papal residence where Mussolini gave his infamous speech on the balcony during World War II.
The artist grew up in a strongly Zionist family; his mother was president of the Brooklyn chapter of Hadassah when Israel was founded in 1948, and she served many terms in subsequent years. As a child, he remembers how she “sold tickets for the youth aliyah; the B’nai B’rith brunches on Sundays; and how all the women who came to our house were members of Hadassah.
“My mother very much wanted me to go to Israel after my bar mitzvah, but I didn’t want to go — in part because everyone else was,” Schnabel said. “I was just more interested in being an artist; it was a point of rebellion in a way.”
When Schnabel finally did visit Israel, he arrived, ironically, the day before the First Intifada began in 1987. While Jebreal was teaching children in refugee camps, he was preparing for his solo show at the Israel Museum. Schnabel recognized that there was a curfew imposed, and that he and his sister were the only people dining in an Arab-owned restaurant his second night in Israel.
While in the Jewish state, the artist had hoped to make a painting on a Bedouin tent in the desert, with Arabs and Jews, and then view it from several hilltops away. Because of the intifada, that didn’t happen. “Really the whole trip was more about me being an American artist talking to Israeli art students than me finding out about what was happening with the [uprising],” he said.
In 1996, Schnabel made his feature film debut with “Basquiat,” a biopic on the self-immolation of the extraordinarily talented young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Schnabel went on to win the top award at Cannes — and was nominated for an Academy Award — for his 2007 visual poem “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” based on the remarkable memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of French Elle, who became paralyzed but with all his mental faculties intact.
As a coterie of publicists prepared to whisk Schnabel away to his next interview, the artist said he doesn’t plan to make another movie for some time and will devote his energy to painting. But his experience with “Miral” has given him a new and unexpected label.
“When I stand up and say I’m an American Jewish director making a movie about a Palestinian, it’s the first time I’ve become the ‘American Jewish director,’ ” he said. “It wasn’t even a question before, but the fact that I am a Jewish person and an American person making a movie about a Palestinian, suddenly that becomes an issue.”