Film Based On A Palestinian Girl's Life Stirs Controversy

Miral is a red flower that grows in the dessert only when it rains. It's also the name of author Rula Jebreal's tale of three generations of Palestinian women. The book, now a movie, sparked a fire storm of debate. The Palestinian journalist talks about her story and the power of hope.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes we will look ahead to our muses and metaphor series. We're celebrating National Poetry Month in April with your tweet poetry. You get only 140 characters to say what you want to say, but we'll tell you more coming up.

But, first, a coming of age story. A story of love and loss and the story of one of the most intractable and emotional political conflicts of our time told from one very specific point of view. It's a new film called "Miral," and it's set in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories during what is known as the First Intifada, the prolonged uprising against Israel that began in the early 1980s. Miral is a young girl trying to figure out her place in this world.

(Soundbite of film, "Miral")

Unidentified Man: My sister, they put her into jail for 10 years and afterwards they threw her out of the country. She will never come home again. She will never see her home. I don't want this for you. No violence.

Unidentified Woman: You don't understand anything. You don't understand anything. 'Cause you've been hiding in the mosque your whole life.

MARTIN: "Miral" draws heavily on the life of Rula Jebreal, a Palestinian journalist who wrote "Miral" the novel and then the screenplay for the film. The film, which was directed by the celebrated artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, has been screened in Israel and Europe, but has just been released with some controversy in New York and Los Angeles and it is set for a wider U.S. release this weekend.

And Rula Jebreal joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. RULA JEBREAL (Writer, "Miral"): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Let's start with the title. I understand that it is your daughter's name in real life. Do I have that right?

Ms. JEBREAL: Yes.

MARTIN: And it is also the name of a red flower, a common red flower. Why did you decide to title the film this way?

Ms. JEBREAL: Miral means hope and it's a red flower that grows in a very rare circumstances - in the desert when it rains, which is, you know, very rare. And it's very small. You don't notice it in the beginning and then you notice the beauty of it. And if you start seeing it, you notice it everywhere. And these are the signs of hope that I felt for my country. That the small things happening that can change the course of - the history of the - the face of my country.

And the things that you see of my country is the violence, the number of people that die every day. And you wonder how many people still have to die before things change and before we have a different life, a different future. So, when you start seeing "Miral" and asking yourself this question, I think this is the beginning of an answer. This is the beginning of a solution.

MARTIN: The film and the book that preceded it are described as semi-autobiographical. But I've read that you have said in interviews that everything in the book, in the film is true. It's something you have witnessed with your own eyes. Is that true?

Ms. JEBREAL: Everything is true. Everything has happened to me, happened to my family, happened to my friends, to everybody surrounding us. And it's really a story of women, a story of struggle, of survival, of courage, of heroism. And a story of pain and dreams.

MARTIN: But you are a journalist, why not - why fictionalize it?

Ms. JEBREAL: I never fictionalize it. I simply wanted to process certain information. And it was not ready. You know, I lived in that orphanage that I talk about. I arrived to the orphanage at the age of five. My sister was four. My mother committed suicide because she was raised by her stepfather.

And my sister had so much, you know, she was crying the whole time. She had fear, anxiety, she wanted to go home. Her issue is I want to go home. That was the only thing you she heard come out of her mouth. She was four, I became her mother in that moment. And I started telling her stories and we start reading books. And that became my tool to handle this moment of trauma.

Later on, when I lived other traumas, living during the First Intifada, going to the manifestation, I saw the brutality of the police, oppression, the racism, they killed many friends of mine. And I was myself beaten up and tortured. When I left my country, I didn't want to handle this information. I wanted to start new life fresh.

And when I saw the Second Intifada coming, 2000, I thought, my god, we went through this. We signed a peace agreement. We thought that our children will never have to go through this again. And it's happening again. They killed the peace agreement and now it's all over from the beginning. So, like we didn't achieve nothing - we didn't learn anything from what happened.

I start writing the book...

MARTIN: So, why do you think this was your way to process this?

Ms. JEBREAL: Writing this book was to process all of this information. And to face them from, again, with different eyes.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Rula Jebreal. She is the author of a novel called "Miral," which has now been made into a film by the celebrated artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel.

I do want to point out that the film is told from the perspective of Miral. But all the Israeli characters are not bad. I just want to point out. That there is for example...

Ms. JEBREAL: No. No. And not all the Palestinians are good also.

MARTIN: Are good either. I'm going to get to that. I'm going to get to that.

Ms. JEBREAL: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I just want to play a short clip from the film where the character of Miral meets her cousin's girlfriend who is Israeli.

(Soundbite of movie "Miral")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. STELLA SCHNABEL (Actor): (as Lisa) I'm Lisa, Samir's girlfriend.

Ms. FREIDA PINTO (Actor): (as Miral) I know. Are you in the army?

Ms. SCHNABEL: No. Lucky me, I left my shop. They let me out.

Ms. PINTO: (as Miral) Lisa.

Ms. SCHNABEL: (as Lisa) Hm?

Ms. PINTO: (as Miral) Are you serious about Samir or are you just playing with him?

Ms. SCHNABEL: (as Lisa) You don't need to come back and stop over. And what did I ever do to you? Huh? I love him. Have you ever loved anybody before?

MARTIN: To that end though, as you know, the film has just started being seen in the United States. And one of the criticisms - there are a number of American Jewish groups or leaders of a couple of American Jewish groups have been very upset about the film, saying that although the characters are not all, you know, uniformly good, uniformly bad on either side, and there are scenes where, for example, I don't know if this is giving too much away, but there is a Palestinian character who is killed in the film because he's deemed a traitor because he is interested in seeking peace with the Israelis.

But there are those who argue that the violence that committed by the Palestinian side is glossed over. For example, there is a character in the film who is a terrorist but she says the bomb didn't go off.

Ms. JEBREAL: Oh.

MARTIN: She didn't actually kill anybody. The violence that the Israelis commit is seen and fully experienced but that the violence that Palestinians have also committed is not seen and fully realized. That is what...

Ms. JEBREAL: I think when you see a man killing - a Palestinian man killing another Palestinian man and strangling him, that's the kind of violence that is very present. You see it. You witness it. We shouldn't try to be really very careful how to use the violence. For example, even when Israelis shoots Hadil, who is Miral's friend in a manifestation, you don't see blood. You don't see anything. You see her lying on the floor but you see that yes, she's dead. What I'm saying these Jewish group that they attacked the movie without seeing it, because we really invited them to see it. I send them a personal letter to invite them to see it. I sent it even to Congressman King, saying you know what, you're talking about Muslim whatever, come see this movie.

MARTIN: You mean Congressman Peter King of New York, who recently chaired the hearing...

Ms. JEBREAL: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...to investigate the alleged radicalization of American Muslims - that Peter King? You said you personally invited him to see the film?

Ms. JEBREAL: Yeah. We send him a letter and invite him...

MARTIN: And he has not seen it?

Ms. JEBREAL: Of course not. Of course not. It's easy to attack preventively without seeing it, and this is what's happening with this movie. Some people would attack it preventively saying oh, we know that it's anti-this, anti-that. We invited them to the United Nations when we made the premiere. Nobody showed up. Nobody came. And that's what concerns me. You know, trying to shut down the conversation and not to start it will not really take us anywhere. If you forbid people from talking what do you think the consequences will become?

MARTIN: You know, interesting though that there's been the political controversy around the film, but there have also been the reviews. The reviews, it strikes me, have been much more critical in the United States than they have been in either Israel or Europe. Is that your understanding as well?

Ms. JEBREAL: Of course. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Do you experience that? What do you make of that? What do you think?

Ms. JEBREAL: It's the same. Most of these, you know, reviewers, they go to the movie knowing the controversy that was around. They are scared to lose their jobs. They are not even honest intellectually. What they do is they use the same attacks not on...

MARTIN: Are they allowed not to like it? Are they not allowed to not like the film?

Ms. JEBREAL: Well, I mean you know what? You can like it or not like it. It's fine. But it's impossible statistically that you don't like anything of a movie. I read a reviewer, he didn't like the music, he didn't like the dialect, he didn't like the color, he didn't like the cut, he didn't like the editing. You know what? I see it as a political attack that tells people don't go see this movie. It's the same. They have the same goal. It's not about the movie. It's about their projection. It's about their fear and it's about what they bring with their own history in this movie. It's a story that they don't see. They see their own story. They see their own fear. And this is what's preventing them from seeing the real story and the real movie.

MARTIN: OK. Well, for those who are going to see the movie, the real movie, what would you like them to see?

Ms. JEBREAL: I would like them to see something that they never saw in this country, which is for 63 years you never saw this point of view of Palestinians. You never saw it. You never heard a Palestinian narrative that tells you about how women live in a war zone, how they survive, how they go through harassment and difficulties, and how they can make their own destiny. How can education change the destiny of a little girl a child? And what does it take for the Israelis and for the Palestinians, you know, what does they need to do more, especially the civil society? What, you know, to scream more, to do more, to change what they are living.

MARTIN: The movie does end on a hopeful note where the character goes off to pursue her education and there is a sense of hopefulness. Do you still have that sense of hopefulness?

Ms. JEBREAL: Absolutely. Everyday. And I have not only that sense of hopefulness, I believe that things can be different. I worked in Cairo two years ago as an anchorwoman, as a producer of TV show and if you would have asked the people in Cairo do you think Mubarak would go away one day, they would laugh, say impossible. He resigned. He left power, topping in Tunisia, topping everywhere.

Look at Europe: 60 years ago there was war, genocide, destruction; 60 years after, we have democracy, respect of human rights and a good economy. If that happens in Europe it can happen anywhere. I really believe that the civil society one day will stand up and tell the politicians that they are crippled culturally and mentally and they cannot accept any more to be run by these people.

MARTIN: Rula Jebreal is a journalist. She is the author of the novel "Miral," upon which the film "Miral" is based. She wrote the screenplay. She joined us now from our studios in Washington, D.C.

Rula, thank you so much joining us.

Ms. JEBREAL: Thank you very much. Thank you.

MARTIN: If you'd like to see "Miral," we will have a list of air dates and locations around the country. Please go to the Program page of TELL ME MORE at npr.org.

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