Celebrated Jewish artist-director defends his pro-Palestinian film

In an early scene in “Miral,” the new film by Jewish artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel that opens in the Bay Area on Friday, April 1, a Palestinian activist comes across a ragtag group of about 50 children in Jerusalem’s Old City, many of them crying, dirty and barefoot. The oldest is a girl of around 12 who explains that, the night before, the children had barely escaped a fiery rampage that destroyed their homes. They are alone, hungry and terrified.

It’s April 1948, before the establishment of the State of Israel, and the stunned activist, an educated woman from a prominent Jerusalem family, soon learns that the children are survivors of an attack on Deir Yassin by Jewish paramilitary groups. Her response is to found a school and orphanage for children displaced by the fighting, a place that, over the course of the film, grows to accommodate thousands of girls.

Freida Pinto as Miral in Julian Schnabel’

The movie goes on to tell the story of several generations of Palestinian women, notably Miral (Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire”), who, in the late 1970s, arrives at the school after her mother, an alcoholic and victim of childhood sexual abuse, commits suicide. A decade later, the teenage Miral becomes radicalized while teaching in a refugee camp during the first intifada; in one scene, she is arrested in the middle of the night for associating with activists, then brutally beaten while being interrogated in an Israeli prison.

“Miral” is based on an autobiographical novel by Schnabel’s girlfriend, the Palestinian-born, Italian TV journalist Rula Jebreal. Schnabel, 59, is among the most successful painters in the contemporary art world, and the most prominent artist ever to segue successfully into filmmaking.

In 1996, Schnabel made his feature film debut with “Basquiat,” a biopic on the life and death of talented young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. His 2000 film “Before Night Falls” earned actor Javier Bardem an Academy Award nomination, while 2007’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” received four Oscar nods, including one for Schnabel in the directing category.

He met Jebreal at the opening of an exhibition of his artwork in Rome in 2007, and initially assumed she was Indian — she bears a striking resemblance to the Indian beauty Pinto — but was surprised to learn she was, in fact, Palestinian and an Israeli citizen.

The artist and writer clicked, and when she sent him her novel, “Miral,” he was moved and heartbroken by her story. Sometime during the transformation of the memoir into the film, Schnabel left his second wife, the Spanish Basque actress and model Olatz López Garmendia; he and Jebreal now live together.

Schnabel, who is from Brooklyn, said he knew almost nothing about Middle East politics before meeting Jebreal. The artist grew up in a strongly Zionist family; his mother was president of the Brooklyn chapter of Hadassah when Israel was founded in 1948, and she served many terms in subsequent years. He remembers how, when he was a child, she “sold tickets for the youth aliyah, the B’nai B’rith brunches on Sundays, and how all the women who came to our house were members of Hadassah.

Julian Schnabel (left) and Freida Pinto work on a scene in “Miral.”

“My mother very much wanted me to go to Israel after my bar mitzvah, but I didn’t want to go — in part because everyone else was,” Schnabel said. “I was just more interested in being an artist. It was a point of rebellion in a way.”

Schnabel burst onto the art scene as a major figure in the 1980s, achieving international recognition for his exuberant, large-scale paintings set on canvases adorned with broken ceramic plates. He also made a splash for his larger-than-life personality (wearing his signature pajamas in public, for example, and his extravagant lifestyle and circle of movie-star friends).

When he finally did visit Israel, he arrived the day before the first intifada began in 1987.

The other major player behind “Miral” is Harvey Weinstein, the brash chairman of the Weinstein Co., an inventor of modern independent cinema who last month triumphed at the Oscars with “The King’s Speech.”

Weinstein, who, like Schnabel, is Jewish, has acknowledged that “Miral” is “pro-Palestinian,” but has vociferously defended the picture from attacks by some prominent Jewish leaders who see it as anti-Israel.

In the weeks leading up to “Miral’s” release, some mainstream Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, condemned the drama as agitprop and, in particular, denounced its U.S. premiere at the United Nations earlier this month.

“The film has a clear political message, which portrays Israel in a highly negative light,” AJC Executive Director David Harris wrote in a letter to the U.N. “Permit me to ask why the president of the General Assembly would wish to associate himself … with such a blatantly one-sided event.”

Playing off the controversy, the Weinstein Co. has been promoting the film with a graphical print and online advertisement featuring a striking red-and-black image of Pinto, which Schnabel said he shot himself, accented with a barbed-wire Star of David surrounding her eye and a bold tagline declaring “Miral” to be “the movie they tried to stop.”

“I know a good line when I hear it,” Harvey Weinstein said in an email to the Associated Press. “Seriously, though, it is true that attempts were made to halt the premiere at the U.N., and I did find that sad and troubling. Our ultimate goal is to get people to see ‘Miral,’ a movie we love and believe in, and one we think can promote valuable dialogue.”

In a telephone interview from New York, Schnabel said he understands why some Jews have condemned his movie — some without even having seen it.

“It comes out of fear,” he said. “The fear that the Holocaust occurred, that ‘we have been [decimated], and we don’t want it to happen again,’ that ‘these people, the Palestinians, are against us having a State of Israel, and we must fight for that, no matter what happens.’ But I don’t believe that’s true.

“I believe a Jewish homeland in Israel is super important, and a great thing, but we must have empathy, we have to be sensitive. I don’t think it’s a very encouraging way to look at people, as us and them. It isn’t us and them. We are all human beings. And what is good for the Palestinians is also good for the Israelis.”

Among complaints leveled against “Miral” is that it presents Israeli soldiers as one-dimensional villains — but Schnabel doesn’t perceive the filmmaker’s job as a political balancing act.

“Just as if I were painting a portrait, I’m dealing with what is in the frame that is related to Rula, and to Miral’s point of view,” he said. “It’s not from my omniscient point of view of a 59-year-old Jewish guy who’s got all these different facts where I have to explain who attacked whom in the Six-Day War. It’s Miral’s family history as it was told to her, and as it was lived by her. And that’s the power of the story. I can’t do this inexhaustible summation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are just too many stories.”

Not that Schnabel is without his own opinion. “When I shot the movie and lived and worked in Israel and in Palestine, I was pretty ashamed of certain situations that I witnessed,” he said. “I felt it was like apartheid over there, and that’s very disappointing. There’s democracy for Jewish people in Israel, but I don’t think there’s democracy for Palestinian people … When I see a kid with payes and a yarmulke throwing a rock into a Palestinian home and screaming at them, that doesn’t seem to be the Jewish way to me.”

“Miral” has received mixed reviews, with the New York Times opining that it “[produces] more bafflement than catharsis or illumination,” and the Los Angeles Times noting its “lack of a compelling lead figure” and “stilted expository dialogue,” though many have praised the film’s impressionistic, colorful look.

Schnabel said he doesn’t plan to make another movie for some time and will instead devote his energy to painting. But his experience with “Miral” has given him a new and unexpected label.

“When I stand up and say I’m an American Jewish director making a movie about a Palestinian, it’s the first time I’ve become the ‘American Jewish director,’ ” he said. “It wasn’t even a question before, but the fact that I am a Jewish person and an American person making a movie about a Palestinian, suddenly that becomes an issue.”

Derrik J. Lang of the Associated Press contributed to this report.

“Miral” is opening Friday, April 1 at Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal