Julian Schnabel on his "anti-Israeli" film

The controversial director defends his new movie, "Miral," from charges of bigotry

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published March 23, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)
Rula Jebreal, Julian Schnabel and Freida Pinto
Rula Jebreal, Julian Schnabel and Freida Pinto

People have accused Julian Schnabel of many things. As I told him before turning on the tape recorder during our recent conversation, almost as soon as this story is published, some readers will no doubt accuse him of naiveté, poor judgment and betrayal of his Jewish heritage and Zionist roots. But one thing you can never say about this charismatic painter cum filmmaker -- who has described himself as "the closest you'll get to Picasso in this lifetime" -- is that he lacks passion.

Schnabel's beleaguered new film, "Miral," is a work of passion in several senses. It emerged from his collaboration and off-screen romantic partnership with Rula Jebreal, a Palestinian émigré turned Italian TV personality, and it was pretty much designed as a lightning rod for controversy. Adapted from Jebreal's autobiographical novel, "Miral" tells the interlinked stories of four Arab women living in Israel, from the state's creation in 1948 through the Oslo peace process in the mid-'90s. As Schnabel has repeatedly explained, it also emerged from his reconsideration of his Jewish roots and the life of his mother, a one-time head of the Zionist women's organization Hadassah. (Schnabel was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but mostly grew up in the highly un-Jewish surroundings of Brownsville, Texas.)

Miral, played by Indian actress Freida Pinto (in an unusual example of cross-cultural casting) is a fictional version of Jebreal, a motherless child largely raised in the Jerusalem orphanage run by Hind al-Husseini (Hiam Abbass), a figure who approaches Mother Teresa status in the Arab-Islamic world. Along the way Schnabel also provides fragmentary histories of Miral's mother, Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), an alcoholic and victim of sexual abuse who commits suicide when Miral is a child, and her prison cellmate Fatima (Ruba Bial), a would-be terrorist bomber who becomes Miral's aunt. 

"Miral" is often exciting to watch, with the subjective, highly fluid camerawork and rich, smeared colors of Schnabel's last film, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." We witness Nadia drowning herself, for example, from her point of view, bobbing up and down in the Mediterranean and finally going under. (The film was shot by the terrific French cinematographer Eric Gautier, known for his work with Arnaud Desplechin, Olivier Assayas and Patrice Chéreau.) I wouldn't normally try to review a film in the context of an interview, but since Schnabel asked me directly what I thought of "Miral" and forcefully defended its unorthodox structure, I'll say this: It isn't the shifting narrative focus of "Miral" that's the problem, nor is it the purposefully provocative pro-Palestinian perspective. It's Jebreal's screenplay, which uses every scene as a vehicle for delivering news headlines or condensed political rhetoric, and seems incapable of capturing a specific emotion or an individual personality.

Schnabel has shortened and tightened the film since its premiere at Venice last fall, but it remains to be seen how the combination of mixed reviews (at best) and heated controversy will play in the marketplace. A recent screening at the United Nations provoked an angry protest from the American Jewish Committee, which argued that showing such a film without even consulting the Israeli delegation amounted to a political endorsement. But the most revealing thing Schnabel told me is that he views politics as a foreign language. He doesn't include scenes of Miral being beaten by an Israeli cop, or a house being demolished in a Palestinian refugee camp, for their propaganda value, and has no natural feeling for political arguments (which may explain the talky, awkward character of the dialogue). Those images are here because they were formative experiences for a particular young girl, who grew up to become Schnabel's lover and collaborator.

The point of "Miral," in some sense, is that it's a film made by an American Jew -- and being distributed and promoted by another one, Harvey Weinstein -- that explicitly views the history of Israel from the Palestinian point of view. To say that it's one-sided is meaningless, since Schnabel is committed to fragmentary perception and point of view, not to neutrality or political balance. How well it works is quite another matter, but it'll be intriguing to watch Schnabel -- whose film career has almost seemed charmed to this point -- battle back from adversity.

As ever, Schnabel was a generous and combative conversationalist, alternately praising me for my good taste and delivering lectures about his artistic method. He was in Los Angeles doing press interviews this week, so I didn't get to visit his pink "palazzo" in Greenwich Village. We spoke by video chat, and as far as I could tell, he wasn't wearing his famous bathrobe. (You know what happens when you have a new girlfriend, guys; the wardrobe gets a makeover.)

Well, Julian, I think it's fair to say that you're getting lots of flack for this movie.

Let's see. When? There's different forms of flack. Are you referring to the United Nations moment, or the whole history of this film since people became aware of it? Try some different versions of that question.

OK -- you must have known going in that you can't even say the words "Israeli" and "Palestinian" without somebody taking shots at you.

Yeah. But, listen: I don't want to get shot at -- let's not give anybody any ideas. Maybe we can back that metaphor up.

Fair point. You knew you were poking a hornet's nest. People were going to get pissed at you.

Well, Yitzhak Rabin was called a traitor, and there were pictures of him in Israel with a Nazi swastika on his face. He was killed because he wanted to take the settlements away, and the movie ends, essentially, on that day. A lot of hope died on that day, and since that moment the growth of the settlements has been exacerbated immeasurably, and there have been many suicide bombings. All of that came after that moment -- that was the most optimistic moment in this conflict.

That being said, I read Rula Jebreal's book and I thought: What a beautiful story! What a beautiful man her father was. What a forgiving girl this was, who didn't blame her mother for committing suicide when she was 5 years old. There's a lot of forgiveness that's in this book. Not just because she loves the State of Israel. She is Israeli, and her family lives there. She wants a democratic state for everybody that lives there, not just for Jewish people. I think that's totally reasonable! It sounds like the United States. I think everybody that lives in Israel -- whatever you want to call them, Palestinian or Israeli -- should all have the same rights.

Now, that's not what I thought before I made the movie. I didn't even think about it before I made the movie. What happened to me when I read the book was that I thought about it as a storyteller, as somebody who makes movies. When I made "Diving Bell and the Butterfly," I thought it was interesting to be inside of this guy for the first 40 minutes of the film, before you finally see him. Obviously somebody could say: "When are you getting out of the POV? Why are you doing this? Is this a trick?" Well, if you didn't have the claustrophobia of that, you couldn't feel the freedom.

When I told this story, I thought: If I tell the story of Hind Husseini, and the story of Nadia and of Fatima, by the time we get to Miral we'll know exactly who that character is. We'll understand why she does what she does. If any of us -- you or me or anyone -- grew up in that school and went to teach in a refugee camp and saw a building getting knocked down, they might say, "Hey, I'm living in a situation that's better than those people, and I have to do something about that." If I see somebody fall down in the street, my impulse is to pick them up, not to walk by and not do anything about it. That's a simple human impulse that doesn't have anything to do with Israel or Palestine, left and right.

It's a human issue, and I tried to tell a human story in that setting, knowing that it would ruffle some feathers, knowing that people have a knee-jerk reaction when you mention the word "Palestinian." And knowing that we need to make peace there, because if there's not peace there it will reverberate and echo everywhere. I made this movie because I want peace. Why hate these people? I don't hate these people. There are people who are in the middle of this conflict, and we don't want to nurture hate. We want to nurture kindness, openness, understanding, empathy. When people say it's anti-Israeli, I don't think it's anti-anything. If you live in the United States and you criticize the government, it doesn't make you anti-American. It means you want a better government, and I believe that about Israel also. There are better people there, and they should take over. I don't agree with what's going on with Hamas, or with Netanyahu either. I think on both sides we've got radicalism, and in the middle there are sane people who need to have a peaceful, democratic, nonviolent revolution.

How important is it that this film was made by a Jewish person?

Oh, it's absolutely important. That's one of the most damning things, the thing that gets people's ire up, the fact that this story is being told by a Jewish person. Danielle Berrin, who writes the column Hollywood Jew for the Jewish Journal, wrote a very beautiful piece about this. She basically asks, "Am I betraying my tribe by telling this story?" In the Torah it says, "Know the stranger. Take care of the stranger. Remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt." It's pretty cool, and I think that's an element of this discourse. I'm a Jewish person and I'm also somebody that is well known. I had a show in the Israel Museum in 1987, and my mother was president of Hadassah in Brooklyn, not only in 1948 [when the state of Israel was created] but many times. So was my Aunt Mary and so was my sister. My father belonged to B'nai B'rith. I actually believe in the State of Israel, but we have to have the state that my mother wanted to build, a kind place, a utopian place, a democratic place for everybody that lives there.

You have said that "Diving Bell and the Butterfly" was a movie made for your father, and this one was more for your mother.

Absolutely. My mother was always a little bit angry with me, because in the painting of mine that's at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my father's in the center of the painting and my mother's kind of on the side, far away from him. She wanted to know why he was in the center. A friend of my sister's once heard a docent at the museum saying, "Oh, well, these people obviously don't get along." My sister's friend stopped the docent and said, "I know those people and they've been married for 60 years. They love each other, they just happen to be sitting in different parts of the painting."

After the war, my mother relayed Jewish people from the camps to different sites in the United States. They were always wearing her clothes, and then they'd be gone the next week and someone else would be in the house. If we have a privileged life, then it's our responsibility to help other people. I'm not patting myself on the back in any way, but I did this because I just -- I want this to stop. That's my personal impulse. I don't know what one person can do, but it's better than doing nothing. It's better than saying, "If there's a problem, don't tell me about it." That's no way to behave.

Now, besides all that, did you find the movie interesting as a film?

Well, it's very beautiful to watch. Visually, it's amazing. I always respond to your work as pure cinema. As far as fitting the characters together into one story, that's going to be for the viewers to figure out. It's a difficult puzzle in some ways.

Have you seen [the classic Italian film] "Rocco and His Brothers"? Different stories about different people. I think it's dense, and I think if you've seen it once, it's worth seeing it a couple of times. Most people who make movies would like to find a tried-and-true structure, sell as many tickets as possible and make it as easy as possible for the lowest common denominator to follow the story. That's not my goal. My goal is to wonder: Can it be told like this? I like the person in the audience to wonder: "Well, what kind of movie am I watching? What is this? I'd better pay attention because this is not what I thought I was looking that." Those kinds of realizations and observations are key to my work. Unconventional ways of telling the story always excite me.

If you blink during the scenes Nadia gets arrested, gets out of jail, gets married and has a 5-year-old kid -- if you go to the bathroom or get popcorn, you don't know what the hell you're looking at. It's pretty economical. It gives you the essence of that character, and takes her and puts her into Miral. I'm telling you about Miral as I'm doing that. You know, throughout the mini-history of my life as a filmmaker, people have criticized my movies for being episodic, as if that was a bad thing. But if you think of somebody who believes that the fragment embodies the whole, well, this is the M.O. of how I approach the material.

I appreciate the bravado of casting your daughter Stella as the only sympathetic Israeli character in the whole movie. Tell me about that.

I'll tell you, I was really sticking my neck out there. If she wasn't a good representation, that would have been a real shortcoming. There are a lot of good Israeli actresses, but I actually felt that my daughter was that character. She had that strength and complexity and naughtiness and openness that embodied that character. I was very pleased with her work. I really thought about this a lot: Can she do this? It's not the easiest thing in the world, to work with a family member. When you say something to your daughter, it's very different from saying something to an actress. So sometimes I had to say to her, "I'm saying this as your director, not your father." She went there, she lived in Israel and had many Israeli friends, and she became very connected to an Israeli family. She's more Jewish, so to speak, than my other children. I don't know why you feel that a part belongs to somebody, but I don't think anybody could have done it better. She's a very intense person, and I'm glad she's got this outlet. People really respond to her. She gets on the screen, and turns the thing on.

You know, one of my favorite moments in the film is when you hear Pete Townshend talking about his own record, "Here's a rare recording of Pete Townshend alone, accompanied by his guitar." I love seeing Stella's face at that moment, as she's hearing that.

Now that I've answered your questions, let me ask you a question: If that's one of my favorite moments in the film, what really is my position? Because I'm not a politician, and I'm speaking a foreign language when I'm talking about politics. I'm talking about human beings coexisting over there, and just by talking about them it becomes political.

Well, I think every one of your films is personal. I don't think you could possibly disagree with that. I'm not too interested in gossip about your personal life, but it's obvious that in this film the political became the personal in a very intimate way. I mean, the film is really about your relationship with Rula, isn't it?

Well, yes. I couldn't have made the movie without Rula. I mean, I needed somebody to tell me what was going on in a Palestinian girl's bedroom when she's 14. What does she have hanging on the wall? What's in a refugee camp -- the one where she taught? What isn't there? I told her I needed her help, and she had a television show in Rome and thought she would be commuting back and forth. I said, "You're going to be working 48 hours a day. You don't understand how much information I need from you."

I really wanted her to check every frame. Before I started shooting, I always asked, "Is Rula around?" You know, you could ask: Was that because I was in love with her? I can't separate the feeling from what was happening, but I would think definitely not. It had nothing to do with being in love with her. She knew where the skeletons were buried. This was her story. I didn't want to make anything up. I wanted to make it as accurate as possible, not as convenient as possible.

I wanted a Palestinian person to look at this movie and think that a Palestinian person had made it. I wanted the Palestinian wedding to look exactly right. I went to the house where her father lived, the house where Nadia was raped, I went to every place I could.

The first question you asked me was whether I expected all this flack, and was it worth it. I thought it was something we needed to look at. We needed to hold up a mirror to ourselves and to the others. Look, there are Palestinian people that don't like it when we say the girl's mother was a prostitute. They're not proud to see that the stepfather rapes the daughter, or they don't like it when we say that one Palestinian strangled another. Jewish people don't necessarily see those things: They see that the soldier tells the girl to shut up, they see Miral getting beaten with a stick, they see the house being demolished. They complain that it doesn't make the Israelis look nice. Well, there's a war going on. Nobody on either side is being nice!

"Miral" opens March 25 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities. 

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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