Julian Schnabel and Rula Jebreal talk about the film ‘Miral’

April 1, 2011

Painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s fourth feature, “Miral,” is a coming-of-age saga. The teenage protagonist, played by “Slumdog Millionaire” star Freida Pinto, experiences first love and fatherly disapproval, and must choose between two very different paths to adulthood. But because Miral is Palestinian, most discussions of the movie center on its political implications.

That’s true even of Schnabel and his artistic and romantic partner, journalist Rula Jebreal, who’s the model for the film’s title character. At a Tuesday evening screening sponsored by the New America Foundation, the Q&A period was devoted almost entirely to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sitting together in the lobby of a Georgetown hotel the next morning, the two eagerly return to the topic.

Jebreal and the then-married Schnabel met in Italy in 2007 and fell in love as they worked to adapt her autobiographical novel into this movie. She is 37, Haifa-born and of both Muslim and Christian background. He’s 59, Brooklyn- and Texas-bred and Jewish, although not the kosher-keeping sort. (He insists on pork rather than poultry sausages for the rushed breakfast the couple consumes before the train back to New York.) He, brawny and garrulous, is wearing a brown sport jacket over purple pajamas. She, petite and soft-spoken, is in tight blue jeans and a white blouse decorated with flowers and butterflies.

“It’s really a cry for peace,” Jebreal says of the movie, which opened Friday in Washington. “The love that I have for Israel, our belief that it should survive and be safe, is what made us write this story. As a Palestinian who has an Israeli passport, Israel absolutely should be safe, secure and a real democracy. A democracy for everybody.”

In some circles, such remarks might be deemed conciliatory. But not in others. When it was announced that “Miral” would have its March 14 American premiere at the U.N. General Assembly, such groups as the American Jewish Committee protested. Its chairman, David Harris, said the movie depicted Israel “in a highly negative light” and is “blatantly one-sided.”

“Every film is one-sided,” Schnabel responds. “Every film has its point of view. When you see a movie like ‘Goodfellas,’ doesn’t it tell the story from a side of an Italian gangster? When the gangster [makes an offensive comment about African Americans], do we think Marty Scorsese’s a racist for saying that? Or is he depicting what he thinks the gangster, who has that opinion of black people, would say?”

“Miral” is not the first movie to bring a West Bank viewpoint to American art houses. It was preceded by the work of such Palestinian directors as Elia Suleiman (“Chronicle of a Disappearance”) and Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now”), as well as Jewish Israeli filmmakers such as Eran Riklis (“Lemon Tree”). But their films didn’t draw the controversy that “Miral” has.

Schnabel, who’s not known for excessive modesty, thinks the reaction has something to do with him. “I’m an American Jewish celebrated filmmaker. I won the Golden Globe, was nominated for Academy Awards, won the Cannes Film Festival. Whatever those [expletive] awards mean, people care about that. I have visibility. The notion that I would take that platform and tell that story, about a Palestinian girl, is something that scares people who don’t want people to hear that story.”

When he first read Jebreal’s novel, the director was attracted to the relationship between Miral and her father, who tries to protect her as he could not her mother. “It’s a story that shouldn’t be told,” he asks rhetorically, “because it’s about people that are supposed to be our enemy? That probably made me want to make the movie.”

The film’s most prominent detractors focus on scenes that show Israeli violence toward Palestinians, but “Miral” also portrays antagonism and brutality among Palestinians. The movie has not been unanimously hailed by the latter, and Jebreal is condemned on both sides of the divide.

“For Hamas, I’m an enemy,” she says. “Someone who is literate, liberal, moderate. I eat what I want. I say what I want. And I’m with a Jewish man!”

While Jebreal has lived and breathed Israeli Palestinian issues since she was a teenager, Schnabel admits to having paid little attention to them until he met her. Directing a movie set largely in East Jerusalem was not initially motivated by his politics.

“I don’t make a film or a work of art to illustrate what I know, but to find out something about myself,” he says.

“Miral” is Schnabel’s first feature that doesn’t follow an adult artist or writer, but he sees it as thematically related to the others, which include “Basquiat” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

“What my films are about is somebody trying to communicate,” he explains, “and there being some kind of obstacle that’s stopping them. They’re trying to get their message out, whether it’s from their body, or some kind of social or government situation.”

While only “Basquiat” and “Miral” are about people Schnabel actually met, he feels connected to all his protagonists. “People ask me, ‘Are you too close to your subject?’ But if you’re not close to your subject, you have a problem.”

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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