Miral: Interview with Director Schnabel–Part One

“The question is, can we establish our life here, not upon the basis of force and power, but upon that of human solidarity and understanding: (One policy) maintains that we can establish a Jewish Home here through the suppression of the political aspirations of the Arabs and therefore a Home necessarily established on bayonets over a long period—a policy which I think bound to fail. . .

The other policy holds that we can establish a home here only if we work sincerely to find a modus vivendi et operand with our neighbors.  I am not ready to try to achieve justice to the Jew through injustice to the Arabs.”

Rabbi Judah Leon Magnes (1877-1948), Founder of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, 1924

“Miral” is the fourth feature from Julian Schnabel, the director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Before Night Falls and Basquiat.

 

The film’s international cast includes Hiam Abbass, Freida Pinto, Yasmine Al Massri, Ruba Blal, Alexander Siddig, Omar Metwally, Stella Schnabel, Willem Dafoe and Vanessa Redgrave.

“Miral” is meant to be a visceral, touching first-person diary of a young girl growing up in East Jerusalem as she confronts the effects of occupation and war in every corner of her life.

Schnabel pieces together momentary fragments of Miral’s world–how she was formed, who influenced her, all that she experiences in her tumultuous early years–attempting to create a raw, moving, poetic portrait of a woman whose personal story is inextricably woven into the bigger history unfolding all around her.

Miral’s story, which shifts through layers of time and emotions, begins with the woman who will become her teacher. Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), who in 1948 turned her father’s home into the Dar Al-Tifel Institute, an orphanage and school for Palestinian children.

What would you do if you found 55 orphans wandering the streets in the midst of a war-torn city?

For Hind, the answer is to protect them, draw a line around them and make a safe haven where they could not be harmed, and where they could learn in safety and begin to imagine a more peaceful world.

In 1978, years after Hind starts the school, a five year-old girl named Miral (Fridea Pinto of  “Slumdog Millionaire”) arrives at the Institute afte her mother’s tragic death.  The film is her personal story. The screenplay is by Rula Jebreal, based on her semi-autobiographical book of the same name.

She grows up sheltered inside the protective walls of Dar-Al-Tifl. But then at the age of 16, on the cusp of the Intifada, Miral is assigned to teach at a refugee camp where she is awakened to the anger and struggles that seem to be her legacy.

When she falls for a fervent political activist, Hani (Omar Metwally), Miral is drawn into a personal dilemma: to choose a path of violence or to follow Hind’s hard-fought belief that education is the only way to pursue lasting peace.

Based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Rula Jebreal, Julian Schnabel’s “Miral” is an ambitious drama that chronicles nearly four decades of change in the Middle East, told from the unique perspective of a young Palestinian girl named Miral.

Beginning in the late 1940s, just as the State of Israel is born, the film introduces us to three different women whose destinies are forged by the seismic shifts that occur when Palestine is subsumed by this new Israeli nation.

These women, each of whom is given her own introduction at the beginning of the film, are Miral’s mother, aunt, and surrogate mother. But, it is Miral, a thinly-veiled version of author Jebreal, who emerges as the protagonist, a constantly evolving character who inherits qualities from each of her forbears, learns from their experiences, and eventually becomes a woman strong and wise enough to remember—and write—this epic story of a divided country.

Working with renowned artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, whose acclaimed and award-winning films have embraced people forced to live on the margins of society, Jebreal has created a drama that’s at once classical in its coming-of-age trajectory, but also original in showing some of the most familiar and highly fraught events of the last century in ways we have never before seen them.  Adopting a style that is alternately insinuating and insistent, Schnabel and Jebreal invite us to see the world through the innocent eyes of Miral and, as she begins to form beliefs and allegiances, we do

too.

The filmmakers try to shift our point of view and shatter our preconceptions. Miral is  movie that is not merely about change; it aspires to achieve it.

Schnabel, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who is also one of America’s foremost living painters, first met Jebreal in Rome in 2007 while attending an exhibition of his work at the Palazzo Venezia. Jebreal, an award-winning journalist specializing in foreign affairs for a number of Italian newspaper and TV outlets, told him about her recently published novel based on her life growing up in East Jerusalem.

Schnabel recalls, “I was so moved by the book and its human, emotional approach, by the time I put it down, I thought there was nothing more important for me to do than to make this movie.”

Describing his need to do the adaptation, he says, “I thought, ‘if I’m going to use this medium, this is what I’m supposed to do with it. I felt it was my responsibility to make this film as an artist and as a human being. I was thinking of films like Battle of Algiers and Salvador, and how I really thought about the issues in those films after seeing them. I wanted to do that with this story.”

Like most Jewish men of his generation, (he was born in 1951, just three years after Israel itself was born), Schnabel feels a strong connection to that country. “I followed the story of Israel my whole life,” he says. “As a child, I remember watching Exodus at Manhattan’s Rivoli Theater with my parents. Everybody stood up when they sang ‘Hatikvah,’ and put their hands on their chests. My mother and father were very proud, and my mother was President of Hadassah in Brooklyn in 1948.

“But, before I made this film,” he notes, “I hardly knew anything about Palestinians. Making this film in Jerusalem allowed me to see this world for the first time, and to work with a landscape that I needed to see.”

Like the flower after which it is named, Jebreal’s book is about those people who “grow on the side of the road,” so numerous and seemingly alike that no one ever notices them. This was the very quality that drew Schnabel to the material. In each of his previous films, he introduces us to characters who live far outside the realm of our everyday experience—a struggling graffiti artist in 1980s New York (Basquiat), a gay Cuban writer persecuted by his repressive government (Before Night Falls), and a man so paralyzed by a massive stroke that his only mode of communication is to blink his eye (The Diving Bell and The Butterfly)—compelling us to walk in their shoes.

In “Miral,” as with his other protagonists, he asks us to see the world through her eyes , so that he can underline the ways in which all of us, no matter how different on the surface, are fundamentally alike. Schnabel always tries to adopt the point of view of his protagonists.

We see the events portrayed in “Miral” from her perspective, that of an impressionable Palestinian girl living through tumultuous times. Since this is a drama based on a novel, and not a piece of journalism, Schnabel felt no obligation to tell “both sides of the story.”

His sole desire, and sole responsibility, was to tell Miral’s story. “Miral is a Palestinian woman,” he continues, “I could not erase that reality. As artists, we can search for objectivity and keep a critical eye but, despite our best intentions, we are always in a subjective state.

“Miral” was never meant to give an exhaustive, historic view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her story is not about historical events, but about what is felt within the body and the heart.”

The filmmaking was a learning process, and scribe Jebreal proved to be an indispensible creative partner. After all, she was Miral.

“Each story told in my book, and in this movie is true,” she says. “I changed names, I merged different personalities and characters, but everything I have told here, I have seen with my own eyes.“ In order to preserve the truthfulness of the project, Schnabel relied on Jebreal’s memory as much as he relied upon her material.

“Julian asked me so many questions,“ she recalls. “Who, where, what , and why. He tried to grasp the subject in all its depth. When we started scouting locations and casting the movie, he wanted to go everywhere. He wanted to see everything with his own eyes; he wanted to talk to people from every perspective. We went to Ramallah, to Jaffa, to the refugee camps. He wanted to understand the inner conflicts that split the Palestinian people. Before each take he would always ask me, ‘Is this authentic? Does this seem right to you?’”

In structuring the film, Miral’s memories and emotions inform the storytelling more than chronology does. Because Hind Husseini, whose school became Miral’s home from the age of five, was the most prominent influence on her life, the film begins with her story.

Then, we are introduced to Miral’s mother, Nadia, a broken woman who ultimately takes her own life. (Interestingly, because Miral is so young when her mother dies, Nadia’s story is filmed in a style that reflects her daughter’s dim memory of her. In all of Nadia’s scenes, the edges of the frame are blurred, and the character is filmed as if she were a ghost— once again showing us how scrupulously Schnabel presents things from Miral’s specific point of view).

Through Nadia, we meet Miral’s aunt, Fatima, the political firebrand whose influence on Miral is forceful if fleeting. It is only then that we meet Fatima’s brother—Miral’s father. Obviously, he has been presentfor Miral’s entire life but, because the woman drive Miral’s story, the man, no matter how beloved, is secondary.

Describing the film’s distinctive style and structure Schnabel says, “This is a story surrounded by historic, concrete events, but it is also expressionistic and highly subjective.” Preferring this “subjective state” to an objective one, and choosing to show events as Miral/Jebreal actually experienced them, Schnabel knew he would run the risk of being called anti-Zionist because of his depiction of Miral’s abuse at the hands of Israeli police.

“What is anti-Zionist supposed to mean?” he asks. “That I want the destruction of the State of Israel? This is one of the dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. The minute you show some empathy for the Palestinian people, you’re accused of wanting the destruction of the Jews!“

Dismissing this argument, Schnabel stresses, “I am Jewish. Everything with regard to the Jewish people affects me. It is my love for my people that makes me wonder about their present and their future. If I had no interest in the fate of Israel,“ he concludes, “I wouldn’t have made this film.”

In a letter he sent to Rula Jebreal in July of 2007, right after reading her book, Schnabel predicted that a film of “Miral” might be controversial. He wrote, “we can’t talk about this region without being accused of making a political statement. That’s okay. People are waiting for statements about these issues, because people need certainties. They want explanations.”

However, providing explanations was not Schnabel’s goal. “This film is not a treatise in political history, nor a polemic” he insists. “It is a poem. My work is the work of a creator first. It is for the audience to decide whether it is social, political, aesthetic, true, or biased. I hope to meet a large audience, and not only an audience of experts on Middle Eastern politics or activists.”

Not a Militant Film

“This is not a militant film,” he continues. “It doesn’t promulgate any cause, or promote any ideology.  On the contrary, it is a humanist film that shows my respect for human beings, whoever or wherever they are.” Emphasizing that his interests are both more timeless and more universal than exploring a specific political situation, he says, “I have respect, compassion, and am sensitive to all human suffering—there’s no such thing as a good or bad victim. A young man or woman who dies, Jewish or Palestinian, will always be a tragedy. Unfortunately, what my film shows happens every day in other parts of the world.  Miral could be a Tibetan, a Chechen, a Kurd, a Tutsi or a Hutu.”

In the same letter sent to Jebreal, Schnabel articulated what he hoped would be the themes of their film. “I am very touched by all the issues related to children,” he wrote. “I think the main challenge we have to deal with is not what kind of world we are going to give our children, but rather what kind of children are we going to give the world. We can leave them the best world ever—green, peaceful, safe—but if they are not aware of what respect is, humanity, charity, they will just make it worse again.

That’s why your story about education is so relevant. Education gives a child self-confidence, self- esteem, and most of all, the ability to choose. And that is the first step to freedom.” Once again highlighting the more universal aspects of Miral’s story, Schnabel wrote, “There is only one thing that all people on this earth share without any exception—we have all been a child once. And you bring all of us back to that time.

When the choice doesn’t rely on the child, but on destiny , or whatever we call it. I could have been you Rula, Hind, Fatima, Nadia , or Miral. A child is always a promise that can be fulfilled or compromised.  That’s what this film will be about.”

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