Toronto 2010: ‘Miral’ director Julian Schnabel: I’m confounded by the ideological criticisms


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Beginning with its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and continuing here in Toronto, Julian Schnabel’s ‘Miral’ has gotten people talking -- or, in some cases, kvetching. Reviewers have raised issues about the film’s shape and dramatic depth -- ‘'Miral’ is structured primarily around an issue, and none of its four protagonists emerges with much of an inner life,’ read the Variety review -- while at one screening in Toronto, there was rustling from a few filmgoers over the balance between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian politics.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel from 30-something Palestinian Rula Jebreal, the movie follows a group of Palestinians during the region’s tumultuous 1947-48 period as well during the first intifada in 1987. It principally tracks the interwoven stories of two people. Hind (Hiam Abbas) is a quiet idealist in Jerusalem’s Old City who takes in several dozen displaced Palestinian children in the aftermath of the 1948 war, founding an orphanage where thousands will be raised in the decades that follow. Meanwhile, Miral (Freida Pinto, playing the part of the author) is a girl raised in the orphanage, and who later feels the allure of radical ideology during the 1987 intifada.


We sat down with Schnabel -- whose previous film, the French-language drama ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,’ was a Toronto hit that went on to earn him a best director Oscar nomination -- in a multiplex here earlier this week. On one of the screens just down the hall his movie was being screened (to mixed reaction, as it turned out). We asked the outspoken director and artist how he felt about the Middle East generally and about the film’s critics.

You’ve said you don’t really see this as a message film -- but were there indeed points you were trying to convey, especially to an American audience?

It’s my responsibility, if I’m painting a portrait of somebody, to try to get it as accurate as possible. They stand in front of me and I try not to respond to what I think of them. It’s the light hitting your cheek that’s going to form the drawing. With a film, my portrait has to be accurate to the book that I’m describing. It’s not my point of view.

But of course you did choose to make this book into a film, and you and Rula (who wrote the screenplay) made choices in how you translated it to the screen.

The choice that I made was that I want people to understand each other. If you don’t take a step in the other guy’s shoes and admit there’s something to talk about, nothing’s going to get solved, ever.

There are some scenes in the film that suggest a very specific attitude on your part about Israeli military actions. What informed those choices?

I tried not to protect or sugarcoat certain things. I’ve seen the kind of coldness or irretractibility [sic] that soldiers in that situation have. Those things affect the psyche of these kids [the soldiers]. These are things they’re going to have live with the rest of their lives. They’re doing them not because they want to do it but because they have to.

Did that stir up conflicting feelings for you as a Jew? And are you worried some might call you a Jewish Uncle Tom?

My mother is a president of Hadassah. I’ve always been rooting for the Jews. And I still am. But I think the way to do it is to understand the neighbors. It’s all about respecting people.

Are you surprised, then, that people are asking you the balance question?

Yes. The fact is I’m telling the story of a 16-year-old Palestinian girl. It’s not where somebody says, ‘Is it a pro-Palestinian movie?’ It’s a Palestinian movie. There’s a difference. It’s about Palestinian people. And they’re not all the same. One guy’s an activist. One woman is a terrorist. One woman is a teacher. Another is a gardener, trying to help his daughter. It’s all about trying to navigate that.

What was your experience with the Middle East apart from what you learned on the set?

My mom said, ‘Go to Israel. You’re going to have that special feeling.’ Every Jewish mother says that. I went to get the feeling, and in talking to some guy [who worked] at the airport about my relationship with Rula, I said she was my girlfriend. ‘How many times do you see your girlfriend a week,’ [he asked]. ‘OK, step over here.’ My mom said when I came to Israel I’d have that special feeling. I don’t think this is the feeling she was talking about.

Even though you’re simply telling the story of a group of people who are, at most, swept up in the politics of others, it does feel like you want to effect some kind of change with the film, particularly with a closing shot of Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally. To what degree do you see this as activist filmmaking?

My parents instilled in me the idea that I was a free person and that I had the right to speak, and if I did, I can try to help other people. If you don’t say anything, you’re just as guilty as the torturer. Maybe that’s the wrong word here. You’re just as guilty -- what’s the better word -- you just can’t watch something that’s a violation of human rights and not do anything about it. It’s pro-peace. It’s pro-humanity. I think the movie is about the battle between humanity and ideology. I’m for humanness all the time.

-- Steven Zeitchik