“Like I said, the concept of having an even hand, to make something more balanced — I don’t think that’s the job of an artist.”
– Director Julian Schnabel, interviewed at New York Times, March 22, 2011.
I’m not familiar with Julian Schnabel’s previous work. Apparently an acclaimed painter, Schnabel directed the 2000 film, “Before Night Falls,” a biographical picture on the life of Cuban gay dissident and intellectual Reinaldo Arenas. One of the film’s reviewers described Arenas as having an “obsession with absolute freedom.” And thus, in turn, the notion of an “obsession with absolute freedom” gives us insight into Schnabel’s motivation for making his latest movie, “Miral,” a pro-Palestinian propaganda flick based on an autobiographical novel by Rula Jebreal. This is so, because frankly, Schnabel’s message in “Miral” is aggressively, shamelessly anti-Israel. The Jewish state is pictured as the caricature of an oppressive, villainous totalitarian regime. It would be too simple to call “Miral” one-sided, because it’s so much more: The film is nothing short of a merciless attack on truth and objectivity. Indeed, Schnabel confesses so much at the epigram to this essay above. The director was asked, by Deborah Sontag of the New York Times, “Did you at any point consider showing Israeli victims of Palestinian violence?” And he responds, “Like I said, the concept of having an even hand, to make something more balanced — I don’t think that’s the job of an artist.”
Or, that’s not the job of an anti-Israel propagandist.
“Miral” tells the story of the lives of four Palestinian women, going back to the establishment of Israel at the end of the British mandate in 1947. One of these women, a pivotal character in the film, is Hind Husseini (played by Hiam Abbass). We see Husseini at the beginning of the movie, in one of the typical scenes staged to maximize emotional sympathy, where she finds 55 children who’ve been orphaned during the war. With wild screams the children recount the gunfire and killing of loved ones and Husseini has the kids follow her home like a Palestinian Pied Piper. From this Husseini goes on to establish the Dar Al Tifel Jerusalem Orphanage and Educational Institution. And within the sanctuary of the school, and the rectitude of its master, we learn of the complicated and intertwined lives of the Palestinians in Israel, and especially of Miral (Freida Pinto), a young Palestinian woman who comes of age during the first intifada of 1987. Miral falls in love with a young PLO operative who is shown being murdered by (we assume) Israeli agents in the film’s closing moments. It’s one more vignette meant to break hearts — and break support for Israel’s national legitimacy
I went to see this movie without prejudice or preconception. I’d heard only minor details of the controversy surrounding “Miral,” most notably the vehement denunciation that was issued by the American Jewish Committee upon the film’s screening at the United Nations. I thus hoped my mind would be clear of preformed bias or ideological castigations. As it turns out, then, I was perhaps even more surprised by Schnabel’s vision of a hellish, Jewish police state. With the exception of a sympathetic Jewish Israeli woman (played by Stella Schnabel, the director’s daughter), Israelis are portrayed as police enforcers and murderous military bureaucrats in the Schutzstaffel mold. It’s one faceless scene after another where Palestinian homes are razed by Israeli heavy machinery and Muslim street protesters are gunned down by police bullets during the uprisings. But never does Schnabel offer a hint of background information, thus viewers are robbed of the chance at greater understanding of the issues and causes — especially those deeply gripping humanitarian violations rooted on the Palestinian side of the Middle East standoff (think Itamar).
I took my oldest son to the see the movie, which was showing at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. On the way there I asked him, “What do you know about the Middle East conflict?” He said he didn’t know anything, which isn’t surprising given the 9th grade public school curriculum. But his best friend is Jewish, so I’m glad that he had a chance to see the film with me. Absent fatherly guidance, my son probably wouldn’t have had the benefit of dissecting the film from the stance of an informed observer, not to mention from the perspective of one knowledgeable of the Left’s worldwide campaign against the Jewish state. In any case, while some mainstream outlets like the Los Angeles Times were all too happy to whitewash Schnabel’s propaganda, there was fortunately a crop of more penetrating reviews that pushed back against the director’s blatant cinematic distortions. See for example, Lisa Palmieri-Billig’s perfectly-titled review at the Jerusalem Post, “The Bitter Half.” And especially Stephen Whitty at New Jersey’s Star-Ledger, “‘Miral’ Review: A One-Sided Story“:
Not surprisingly, “Miral” has already received bad reviews and complaints from Jewish organizations; Schnabel and the studio are playing the aggrieved-artist card, portraying themselves as friends of Israel whose free speech is being denied. It’s not. It is here and it is intact. And in its loud and strident sloganeering, and dishonest portrayal of conflict without context, it only drowns out any real and quiet pleas for peace.
Also see Roger Simon and Lionel Chetwynd’s discussion of the film in a recent episode of Poliwood at PJTV.
PHOTO CREDIT: At top, Julian Schnabel pictured with Rula Jebreal (left) and Freida Pinto, c/o Wikipedia.