Julian Schnabel’s Controversial Movie ‘Miral’

“I make portraits of people. I don’t like it when people say I make biopics because I don’t,” Julian Schnabel said to me this week. “The question is, does a Palestinian girl get to have her portrait painted?”

As an artist, Schnabel is no stranger to controversy. His paintings — big, brash, imposing affairs — have elicited some wildly divergent opinions. Yet as a filmmaker, none of the handful of movies that he’s made, including the Oscar-nominated “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” has generated quite as much controversy as his latest movie, “Miral.”

When the film had its US premiere earlier this month at the United Nations building, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee slammed the movie, calling it “blatantly one-sided” arguing that it portrayed Israel in a “negative light.” And the AJC has not been shy about lambasting the movie on other occasions. During its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the AJC wrote: “Without exception, the IDF [Israeli Defence Force] is stereotyped as an army of inhumane villains…. It is worthy to note that no one seems to be aware that civilians are simultaneously being blown up on Israeli streets by Palestinian ‘activists.'”

The Palestinian girl in question is author Rula Jebreal. Her novel on which the movie is based is a strongly autobiographical account of her youth in West Bank. She struggles between the indignation over the Israeli army’s actions against her people during the first Intifada and her longing for peace. Not surprisingly, Israel doesn’t come off looking good in the movie. But Schnabel, who is Jewish, is unapologetic.

“It’s not my job to make a balanced story. I’m not trying to get elected. I’m telling the story that’s in her book. I’m telling the story that she wrote…I think that people feel the threat of Palestinian people being considered as human beings, which is ridiculous. It’s a really a civil rights film.”

“Miral” first came to his attention in 2007 during an art show at Rome’s Palazzo Venezia. Jebreal, who looks uncannily like her on-screen alter ego played by Frieda Pinto, approached him with a script. “When I met her, I said to her, are you Indian?,” he recalled. “She said to me, no I’m Israeli.” “So you’re Jewish?” “No, I’m Palestinian.” At that moment, I must have had a strange look on my face, because she said “Are you scared?” I said, “Should I be?”

Schnabel wasn’t terribly fond of the script, which was written by somebody else, but he loved Jebreal’s book. He had her re-write the screenplay, which hewed much closer to the novel. The first hour of the movie details the life, not of the main character, Miral, but of Hind Husseini, the woman who founded the Dar Al-Tifel Institute, the all-girls orphanage where Jebreal was raised. Miral’s worldview is very much informed by Husseini. Schnabel felt that this inclusion was important for the movie.

“As a storytelling device, I thought anybody who was human and sane and young that had been surrounded by this supportive environment created by Hind would try to help their own people. Anybody would try to help their own people.”

His collaboration with Jebreal soon extended beyond the movie: they are now in a relationship. “She’s very pretty,” he told me with a wry smile.

Schnabel has only made four feature films, but those movies have racked up a total of five Oscar nominations. His last movie, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” received near-universal acclaim and wound up on Yahoo! Movies’ Modern Classics list.

Yet he considers himself a painter, treating filmmaking as sideline to his main calling. He certainly didn’t have the slick veneer one usually encounters at a Hollywood press junket. He dressed in his trademark pajama bottoms and a flannel shirt. He has a restless charisma that brings to mind a wild animal. He doesn’t talk in sound bites; the last quarter of my interview with him consisted of a sustained five-minute, long run-on sentence. Yet his enthusiasm for the movie and art in general is contagious. Schnabel doesn’t plan to return to filmmaking any time soon. He’s booked up with exhibitions for the next two years. “I don’t make movies for the money. I don’t do it for a career or a job. I did it because I could.”

“Miral” opens in selected cities on March 25.

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