'Miral': A Drama About The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Host Scott Simon talks with artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel about his new movie, Miral. The drama is centered on an orphaned Palestinian girl, who grows up in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli war. Schnabel also directed Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

P: passion, conviction, courage and conflict. A new film, "Miral," tells the story of an orphaned Palestinian girl, who gets drawn into that conflict.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MIRAL")

HIAM ABBASS: (as Hind Husseini) I have to deal with the Israelis every day. you have to think. Prudence is the most precious, very...

FREIDA PINTO: (as Miral) You don't understand anything. If you were me you would be out there too. This is our struggle.

ABBASS: (as Hind Husseini) Listen, girl, this school is the difference between you and the children in the refugee camp. This is your chance, Miral. Don't lose it.

SIMON: "Miral" is directed by Julian Schnabel. He joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JULIAN SCHNABEL: Thank you, Scott. My pleasure to be here.

SIMON: Give us a sense, Mr. Schnabel, Freida Pinto there playing "Miral." Of course, Freida Pinto is known probably for her role in "Slumdog Millionaire." The young girl and her passionate verbal confrontation with the woman who is the head of the orphanage.

SCHNABEL: That was actually Hiam Abbass, who was playing her teacher, Hind Husseini.

SIMON: What kind of story that you want to tell through Miral's eyes?

SCHNABEL: It's not just Miral's story but it's obviously it's also the story of other women at different moments in time through Miral's eyes that have gone through the conflict and their different ways of dealing with it. Some survive some don't. But I thought it was important to tell the story through the point of view of a young Palestinian girl. It's as if it was her diary. That was my goal, to be true to that point of view.

SIMON: I don't have to tell you how much controversy surrounds this film as it opens. We had Harvey Weinstein on our show a couple of weeks ago. His company is distributing the film. Harvey describes the film as pro-Palestinian in the sense that it tells the story from a narrative viewpoint of a sympathetic Palestinian character. Here's what Harvey Weinstein said.

HARVEY WEINSTEIN: You know, I don't understand why this movie should have the kind of, you know, backlash that it's having. But it should be embraced, because you will never understand the Middle East unless you embrace that culture, too.

And I think one of the problems about the Middle East is that the Palestinian conflict has lingered too long. We need to find the solution. This is an open window into that. And it's also a hell of a good story. I'm not running a documentary on this movie. It's not polemical in that way. You will watch a story that will entertain and move you.

SIMON: Now, of course, voices ranging from the American Jewish Committee to the Anti-Defamation League to Harvey Weinstein's mother, as he volunteered to us, have voiced objections to the film. They say it caricatures Israelis and ignores their true life stories of being attacked and defamed. I wonder what sort of answer you give.

SCHNABEL: Well, first of all, there are many Jewish groups that actually have stepped up and rebutted the negativity and said that they're very happy that this movie is made and reinforced Joseph Deiss' decision to show this, who is the president of the General Assembly at the United Nations. And so, I think that there is conflict in between the Jewish community also.

My sister, who is the president of Hadassah, like - actually, my mother was in 1948, but my sister Andrea was at the screening at the United Nations and she was extremely proud and thought it was extremely constructive.

So I think it's about empathy, this film and hearing the other side, being able to hear the other side is considering that there is something that needs to be solved. It is the diary of this girl. Does this girl get to have her portrait painted, or do I need to paint a portrait of an Israeli girl also?

SIMON: Of course, we should point out the film is inspired by the life, really, the author and screenwriter Rula Jebreal. I hate the term girlfriend, but can we refer to her as your girlfriend?

SCHNABEL: At the time when I started working on this she wasn't. And I came to it not because she was my girlfriend but because I read her book and I thought that it was a story that could make a good movie. And I thought, as a Jewish man from New York City, it would be exponentially more interesting or it had some kind of impact if I would tell that story.

SIMON: Speaking with artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel about his new movie "Miral."

Did you take as some people have suggested, some creative license with the scene where Miral is treated brutally by Israeli police?

SCHNABEL: I softened things up a bit.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

SCHNABEL: Because I didn't want to see her back when Miral is being hit with a cane or her face, so there is a black hood over her face. And so, yes, there is some license taking in there not to show actually her back being hit with a stick where she would have scars on her back, which she does.

SIMON: You're talking about Rula Jubreal has scars on her back?

SCHNABEL: She does.

SIMON: Yeah. Inflicted by an Israeli policeman.

SCHNABEL: Yes. But that being said, I think that she loves the state of Israel. One thing that struck me, I mean, she's Israeli and she's Palestinian. And I think what people don't realize also, if we're talking about Jewish people thinking that it doesn't portray Jewish people or Israeli people in a good light. I mean, we're showing a Palestinian stepfather raping his daughter. We're showing Palestinian people killing Hani, who is deciding that he wants to be involved in the peace process.

If anybody has ever seen "Before Night Falls" or "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" or "Basquiat," they might be curious just how I told the story. Because I don't think that you can separate the story from how it's told.

SIMON: Well, help us understand that. Those films that you've mentioned - "Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "Basquiat," "Before Night Falls" - are often, or have often been called biopics.

SCHNABEL: You can use that word, but I think that sells them short in a way. I think they're more like they're portraits of people, filming portraits. Things are told in the first person. And I think when you watch the film, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," you are inside of Jean-Dominique Bauby's skin. You're in his body. You are paralyzed except your imagination is not and you are participating in his situation; you're not watching it from a distance.

I guess all the films are made in the first-person. So, if you can describe that better than me, you can kind of talk about your feeling when you saw those films or if you saw those films.

SIMON: I think portrait's a good phrase; maybe a series of vignettes might not be a bad way of putting it.

SCHNABEL: Mm-hmm. I think also people have looked at my films as episodic in a negative way at the beginning. And I think after making a few of them, I think people understood that was my style or that's my storytelling technique.

By the time Miral arrives in the movie, you know why she's doing something because you've seen what her mother did, you saw what her aunt did, you saw what the landscape was before she ever arrived. And I thought that was an interesting way to tell a story also.

SIMON: You shot this movie in Jerusalem, didn't you?

SCHNABEL: I shot the movie in Jerusalem and in Ramallah and in Acco and in Ramla and Jaffa and Haifa, yes.

SIMON: And what was that like? And I gather a lot of Israeli technicians on the crew, too.

SCHNABEL: Absolutely. We had Israeli technicians and Palestinian crew members and people worked together because they believe that this is about peace and they all want that. It was very, very heartwarming and instructive and constructive at the same time.

The mayor of Jerusalem was extremely helpful and I was able to close where the lion's gate is to shoot up to the Muslim cemetery. And the people that run the Al-Aqsa Mosque let me shoot inside of the mosque. When you see the Husseini house, where the children are brought after Hind finds them in 1948, it's brought to the house that actually was the Hind Husseini house.

And so, in my search for authenticity, I think I found people that really, really helped me.

SIMON: Julian Schnabel, film director and artist, talking about his new film, "Miral," and speaking from our studios in New York. Thanks so much.

SCHNABEL: Scott, thank you so much.

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