‘Miral’ filmmaker Schnabel is feeling the love — and the criticism

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.”