After reading Judge Richard Goldstone’s remarkable piece in the Washington Post today, it’s a further reminder of just how impossible it is to tell any story of Israelis and Palestinians without chasing narratives that inevitably end up colliding.
“Miral” is just such a collision.
Based on the autobiographical novel by Rula Jebreal, the Washington, D.C. premiere of “Miral” included a discussion afterward with the film’s director, as well as Ms. Jebreal, who also wrote the screenplay. Schnabel and Jebreal are partners in life, as in art. Amjad Atallah and Daniel Levy of New America Foundation were the hosts, with an educated foreign policy audience keyed in to what was happening on the screen.
Ms. Jebreal said she has “no resentments” of the First Intifada, but she’s now 37 and wants to know just how long this will have to go on without a resolution. Daniel Levy answered her when he said that “since Oslo we’ve gone back” and it’s come to the point that “hearing the other narrative has an illegality to it.”
Jebreal’s story, which is “Miral,” is compelling and heartbreaking. She is a brilliant, compelling and a deeply passionate woman about peace. At one point Schnabel made a comment that he’d like to see Jebreal sit across from PM Bibi Netanyahu and interview him instead of Piers Morgan, which would be something to see.
The accusations that the film is pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel mystify me, because that’s not what I saw at all. As with all of Mr. Schnabel’s films, “Basquiat,” “Before Night Falls,” both of which I’ve seen (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” I have not), he easily maintains his “It’s not Hollywood, it’s an abstraction” quality, to quote the director, while infusing the characters with heart so that empathy is easily felt.
“If you empathize with the characters the movie does its job,” was the bar Schnabel set for his film, which I believe he reached. When he admits that “you’re watching one kind of movie, then you see another scene and you ask ‘what the hell is happening here?’”, it is the best description of “Miral” that no movie reviewer can replicate. The film is a complicated collage of events that begins in 1947 and goes through Oslo, but does so in a compilation of quick abstractions.
The first large section of the story is the preamble to Miral’s entrance, played by Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire.” It quickly skims Israel’s creation, introduces Willem Defoe as a token American serviceman, though he has no purpose in the film, which Schnabel admits, but like Vanessa Redgrave’s cameo, both actors are present to give support for Schnabel’s efforts at telling this Palestinian story, which is simultaneously one of an Israeli, something people often aren’t able to digest. It’s Regrave’s known Palestinian support that likely helped inflame some against “Miral,” but it’s hard not to honor artists who want to be part of such an endeavor when many big Hollywood names wouldn’t be caught near the subject for fear of ruining their image. Schnabel noted this after the film.
Of the women who come before Miral in the film, the famous Palestinian icon and heroine Hind al-Husseini deserved much more weight in the screenplay, which is one of the problems from the start, as Jebreal’s talent for fleshing out the female characters is weak and is often put second to scripted political messaging.
ONE COLD DAY in April 1948, 31-year-old Hind al-Husseini happened upon a group of 55 young children outside the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem’s Old City. They had been dumped in the Old City and wandered near the church after having survived—and been orphaned by—a massacre in their village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Deir Yassin, by members of the Irgun and the Stern Gang.
Hind rescued the children immediately, bringing them to two rooms she rented for them nearby. Every day, Hind would visit the children with food and spend time with them. She soon brought them to the Sahyoun convent on the Via Dolorosa, following conversations with the head of the convent, who was worried about Hind’s safety en route to visiting the children in their two rooms. Palestine was in the midst of a war, and the Old City of Jerusalem was not spared from attacks. Indeed, shortly after Hind removed the children from the two rooms she had rented, those very rooms were bombed. So, within 10 days, the children had narrowly escaped death—first at their homes in Deir Yassin, and then in the Old City.
After the first cease-fire, Hind brought all 55 children—mostly all under the age of nine—from the convent to her family home, a mansion built by her grandfather in Jerusalem in 1891. Hind had been born there on April 25, 1916. On her 32nd birthday, just two weeks after the massacre of Deir Yassin, she renamed the house the Dar Al-Tifl Al-Arabi (Arab Children’s House), founding it as an orphanage for the young survivors. “It was the worst of times,” she recalled, adding, “It was the end of the Mandate.”
As for other lead female characters, Nadia, Miral’s mother, is a troubled drunk who ends up in prison; the next femme is Fatima, a female terrorist, who meets Nadia in jail. Jamal, Fatima’s brother, ends up raising Miral after her mother’s death. Alexander Siddig, who plays Jamal, whom some of you may remember from episodes of “24,” ends up grounding the entire story, after you get through the beginning narrative.
What struck me from the start of the film was the arc Schnabel was attempting to construct. When I asked him how he managed to edit a piece with such a wide expanse down to 90 minutes he simply replied, “Talent.” It wasn’t a question meant as the set up line it became, but when he quipped “You know the famous line, If I’d had more time it would have been shorter…” I knew his self-satisfaction for getting this ambitious project of love finished, but also getting Harvey Weinstein behind it, which was made possible in part because of the Oscar success of “The King’s Speech,” Schnabel said, was a feat for which he’d be proud, critics be damned.
The critics have not been kind. One reason is because the arc of the film falls in on itself before Miral is even introduced.
One of the things I believe kills the hook to audiences that a storyline requires to support the artistry of “abstraction” is a way in to relate early on so you can jump in and follow the narrative. If you’re hooked on Vanessa Redgrave you’re in, but if you’re not you’ll spend the first chunk of the movie baffled, with Willem Defoe’s cameo nothing akin to what you expect of him in any film making it worse. Even understanding that any ticket buyer is going to be predisposed to “Miral” or they wouldn’t go, the arc of beginning in 1947, while constructing a narrative of a Palestinian girl’s life, then ending at Oslo, with all the inherent politics in between, requires a great deal of athletic film viewing, even by the most dedicated person.
The film poster asks “Is this the face of a terrorist?” It’s the question that no doubt puts some people off seeing the film, while drawing people to it, as the answer seems so obvious, because the girl can’t possibly be that evil. So what makes a terrorist?
We find out through Miral’s boyfriend in the film, because regardless of Hind al-Husseini’s warnings for her to stay away from politics it’s impossible. To be a Palestinian or Israeli in Jerusalem is to be political. It’s inescapable.