From Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Miral, based on the semi-autobiographical book by Rula Jebreal, is a first-person account of a young girl growing up in East Jerusalem while being surrounded by occupation and war. Showing the effects of the Arab-Israeli conflict in her life, in how she was formed and who influences her most, the personal and emotional story of Miral (Freida Pinto) gives audiences an understanding of the bigger history unfolding around her. The young woman who grew up sheltered inside the walls of a school for Palestinian children must choose between a path of violence or following her teachings that education is the only way to pursue lasting peace, in her desire to truly be free.
At the film’s press day, director Julian Schnabel talked about why he wanted to make Miral, what made Freida Pinto the perfect actress to take on this role, his surprise at the reaction of various Jewish groups who are protesting the film without even seeing it, his experience filming in Jerusalem, and his desire for this film to provoke conversation. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
JULIAN SCHNABEL: Because I think that the insanity over there has to end and we need peace. I know it sounds like a cliché or a Pollyanna thing, but it’s not just over there. That has a ripple effect that we’re going to feel here. With one bomb, everybody dies. It’s just sheer stupidity that keeps this conflict going. After 63 years, we’re no closer to a solution. Now, if you look at what’s going on in the whole region, people want democracy in a non-violent way.
With your mother being the President of Hadassah, the American Jewish volunteer women’s organization, in Brooklyn in 1948, what do you think she would have thought of the film?
SCHNABEL: My mother would have been so proud. My sister, who is like my mother, is 11 ½ years older than me, was at the United Nations screening, and she was the President of Hadassah too, in Middletown, Connecticut, and she was extremely proud. At the beginning, she said, “Are you making an anti-Semitic film?” I said, “No, I definitely am not, but we have to ask questions.” We live in the United States. Do we criticize the government here? Absolutely! Are we anti-American because we do that? No. We made this country a better place. There was a Civil Rights movement here because black people didn’t have any rights, and now there’s a black president. Why should we tolerate the same thing over there, that we wouldn’t tolerate over here? Palestinian people in Israel do not have the same rights as Jewish people. They just don’t.
SCHNABEL: To think that, ‘cause I was going to show a movie that was going to tell a story of a Palestinian girl at the United Nations that groups of Jewish people said, “It should be banned and we don’t want to see it.” Saying that, without even seeing it, seems a little bit ridiculous. But, it was very good for me because that’s exactly why I made the movie. People ought to talk about this.
What are you hearing back from people who have seen it? Do they understand the message that the Palestinian people are just as human as everyone else?
SCHNABEL: Yes. One woman from the Jewish Journal wrote a beautiful thing about why Jews can’t handle Miral. There are a lot of groups that came out in favor of the film. When you make a movie and it’s no good, and you sit with a bunch of people, they’re already hiding in the dark and nobody knows if they’re clapping or they’re not, and they don’t have to. No matter how secure you are about what you’re doing, and I’m more secure than most people, you think, “Are they going to like it or not?” You’re watching every frame thinking, “Could this have been better?” And then, sometimes you watch it and you just think, “Wow, that just folds so beautifully into this next thing.” When I’m making a movie, I don’t like to know what’s going to happen next. I like to watch something and be surprised all the time, and just not know, and let it take me wherever. By telling these different women’s stories, I had the opportunity, in this movie, to do that.
SCHNABEL: I think that Freida is extraordinary in this movie. I think she’s such a good actress. I think it was so unfair that people attacked her for being an Indian, playing a Palestinian. Give me a break! She is so good. I was so proud of her. When people see this, they’ll know what she really can do. I don’t know that you got to see much of her in Slumdog Millionaire, or in Woody Allen’s movie (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), but in this movie, she’s pretty damn good. She just had that. She’s just soulful and deep.
What have you learned about directing, from your other films, that you were able to apply to this one?
SCHNABEL: When I made my first film, Basquiat, I think one of the criticisms was that the way I work is episodic. Later, as people started to look at the movies, they started to realize that maybe that’s my style. If I could do it better or another way, I guess I would. I didn’t even know it was my style. But, you seem to make different concessions with yourself about what you want to focus on or not, and what you want to pay attention to. It’s about, “What do I ultimately want out of the story? What was my challenge?” To me, it was, “Can I tell this story, that belongs to this woman, about these people, and can I do it without it just being a boring narrative about this film? And, within that, can I find a poetic that can be subversive enough to grab people in some subliminal way, to where they feel that they are altered and have had an experience that belonged to them?” It wasn’t just about telling somebody a story, but making it as if it happened to them. I want you to walk out of the movie and feel it. Many people say to me, “I saw that movie and it really stayed with me. I woke up the next day and really thought about it, and have been thinking about it for awhile.” That was my goal. There’s also documentary footage that’s in the movie, and there’s stuff that I shot. There’s an authenticity and a reality to it that you can’t escape.
SCHNABEL: Yeah. (Author) Rula [Jebreal] asked me if I would read the script that somebody else wrote, ‘cause she was supposed to sign off on it and she had never done that before. I didn’t know her. I met her at this opening and I said, “Just send it to me.” I read it and I said, “Would you send me the book?” I read it and said, “Well, the book is more like a script than the script. They tried to make it into a movie, but your book is a movie.” It was separated into the stories of these different women and I thought, “Okay, I like that.” There were also some more there.
What was it like to actually film in Jerusalem, in some of the locations from the book?
SCHNABEL: I actually shot the scene where her mother is raped, in the house where it happened. It would have been much easier to make this movie in Morocco, but it wouldn’t have looked like that. I needed to go to the places where it happened. And, there was the reality of Rula actually going back there. It must be a wonderful thing to write something, and then go back and face all of the demons in your past. It was very difficult, sometimes, because the community didn’t want to show that her mother was promiscuous and that her father was embarrassed. They tried to stop us from showing that. Nobody is perfect. I don’t think it’s the most scathing indictment of anybody. It’s pretty innocuous. It’s just the story of one family and one girl, living in that part of the world, and that’s what goes on over there. I thought that maybe it would be informative and useful for people to know more about it.
SCHNABEL: I just felt confident enough to go and do it. Being Jewish, I felt like I could go there and other Jewish people would treat me as one of them and they would cooperate. What people don’t understand is that, when Rula wanted to do this with me, people were suspicious of her, for letting a Jewish person work with her on a movie about Palestinian people. The movie is not pro-Palestinian. It’s about Palestinians. It’s a Palestinian story, written by a Palestinian person. I don’t know anybody else that could have done that. I shot in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I don’t think a Jewish person ever shot there before. I wanted to shoot in there, and those people let me do it, so I had to respect them and so did the Israeli crew. And then, the Israeli crew couldn’t go to (the Palestinian city) Ramallah to work, so I had to have a French crew when we went over there. I needed help from both sides. There were people that worked together, beautifully. The whole art department was mixed between Muslims and Jewish people. And, with the camera crew, everybody had been soldiers. There’s a lot of baggage and a lot of history there, but we need to move forward. We need to not be scared, but understand each other. When you’re around these people, you see they have much more in common than their differences.
Do you want to be a spokesperson with this film?
SCHNABEL: No, I don’t. I’m just talking about this because the film is coming out. I don’t know enough about it to be a spokesperson. I just know what happened to me when I went over there, and I just tried to make the movie. There is an ignorance in the American Jewish population that maybe this movie will change. It’s about something. Let’s make art about something. When art is really great, it’s really powerful, can really do something to you, make you feel more alive and make you feel more connected to something. If you don’t feel like that when you do it, and you just make a movie to make money, that would be pretty boring to me. I just wouldn’t do it. That would be like sitting in an office, which I don’t want to do.