Julian Schnabel’s most recent film, Miral (2010) has attracted much criticism. In contrast, Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), received praise from both the Academy and Cannes. What went wrong? Of course, it’s an immense feat to follow one success with another, yet perhaps the political subject matter proved too overwhelming to draw the same level of enthusiasm as his previous work. Many of the critics mention Schnabel’s attempt at fitting the history of Israel and Palestine into two hours. Mark Jenkins writes in an article for NPR that the film stumbles both thematically and stylistically. He continues that the two things that undermine the director’s balance are “peace and love.” Yet, I never saw Miral as an attempt to summarize the history of Israel and its relationship to the Palestinians. The real story belongs to Rula Jebreal, the screenwriter and author of the novel of the same name. She also happens to be a popular Palestinian-Italian journalist who has, according to the author herself, written an homage to the most significant women in her life. The latter of which takes the form of an autobiography marketed as fiction. Was Schnabel merely trying to represent the story of his current love interest, Rula Jebreal, or was he attempting to tell the history of Israel from a Palestinian perspective? In response to Mark Jenkins, I would hardly use the words “peace and love” to describe the situation in Israel, and Miral certainly does not portray this ideal either. Like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, it seems that Schnabel is telling a story from a particular perspective, one that does not appear frequently in the media—at least not in the United States. In his own words, Schnabel’s intention “was to speak through [her] and be true to her story.” Later he admits that he believes in change and in peace and that he has a particular perspective as a Jewish American, but it seems an afterthought to his greater intention of storytelling. The real heart of the film lies in Rula Jebreal and the women who affected her life.
Miral follows four Palestinian women throughout the history of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict—from British occupation in 1947, Israeli statehood a year later, and to the Oslo Accords in 1993. Our story begins with two women preparing a body for burial, who we soon learn is the late Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass). Jersalem races past the window of the yellow station wagon carrying the body. A voiceover of our protagonist, Miral Shaheen (Freida Pinto), explains that although she was born in 1973, her story really begins with Hind in 1947. It is Hind that eventually starts a school for Palestinian orphans, providing education and, in turn, hope to children who would otherwise be in a refugee camp. It is the school where Miral will eventually find herself, the school which author Rula Jebreal actually attended in Jerusalem called Dar al-Tifl al-Arabi (Arab Children’s House) and which was started by the real Hind al-Husseini.
Jebreal introduces us to several other significant women in the life of Miral, a life that is, according to the writer herself, based on her own life experiences, as well as on those of her family and friends. At one moment in the film, Hind’s character states, “I want my girls to maintain their Palestinian identity. I want them to know where they came from and be proud of it.” Jebreal echoes this sentiment in the interview below. Writing her story was a way of preserving memory, history, and culture, as well as a way of honoring the women that have helped her to achieve success in her life. One of these women is her mother, known as Nadia (Yasmine Elmasri) in the film. Her storyline is a particularly sad one, in that she is portrayed as the victim who never finds her strength. Usually these types of characters are cringe-worthy, as they perpetuate the trope of woman-as-victim. Yet, since the film is based on a true story, it’s more difficult to critique the author’s own memories of and, in turn, portrayal of her mother. Having been sexually abused by her stepfather, Nadia runs away, ends-up in jail, and eventually marries a wonderfully supportive husband and father, Jamal Shaheen (Alexander Siddig), only to kill herself when Miral is just 5 years old. In contrast, Miral’s aunt, Fatima (Ruba Blal) has also been jailed, but for more overtly political reasons. She has attempted a terrorist attack on an Israeli movie theatre. Jamal wants a different life for his daughter. While he wants Miral to be educated and proud of her identity, he doesn’t want her to end-up a victim like her mother, and he certainly doesn’t want her to become a terrorist, like her aunt.
At times, the film feels like a few fleeting snapshots of four women. Jenkins agrees, as he comments, “the four women who rate their own chapters are not equal players.” This seems to be a critique of Schnabel’s storytelling. Yet, the three women who are not our protagonist seem to take up as much space in the film as they did in the life of Jebreal. As she states below, her main inspiration for writing her novel was to honor the people who saved her life. While her mother and aunt provided examples of what not to become, Hind guided her toward a life of education and, in turn, opportunity. Hind offered her a life outside of conflict, and eventually was responsible for Jebreal’s later success as a journalist in Europe. Jenkins also asserts, “Hind is important because she collects some children whose parents vanish in the 1948 war, taking them to her family home.” While this is a significant aspect of her character, this is not what makes her important. The women are deemed meaningful in terms of their relationship to our protagonist Miral, the less-than-fictionalized version of Rula Jebreal.
I agree with A. O. Scott’s review of Miral from The New York Times. Amongst all the controversy over Miral being pro-Palestinian propaganda, albeit expressed through the artistic direction of an American Jew, the film seems to be the basic story of a girl who happened to grow up during the first Intifada in the 1980s. It is a story of struggle, of teenage angst, of hope and promise, and, in the end, success. It just so happens to take place in the middle of a highly political landscape. As Scott comments in his review, “To the extent that Miral espouses an ideology, it is the tolerant, somewhat wistful humanism that is the default setting of Western liberalism.” In an interview about the film, you can catch a few whiffs of politics amongst Schnabel’s babbles, but he doesn’t seem to talk about Israeli politics with nearly as much passion or depth as when he speaks about the art of filmmaking. He also doesn’t seem to have any clear politics about the Middle East, except for a few nice lines about humanity, empathizing with difference, and forgiveness. The result is an overly dramatic, albeit beautiful, film full of underdeveloped characters and clichés. Nevertheless, Miral is hardly a historical trajectory of Israel and Palestine with measured political intentions. It is the story of one woman and the significant people in her life. In the end, the one who stands out the most is Rula Jebreal. Even if you don’t check out the film yourself, it’s worth taking some time to appreciate the real protagonist of this story.
Palestine, Julian Schnabel, Israel, Rula Jebreal