Expectations ran high for Miral, a Palestinian saga directed by Julian Schnabel,
an award-winning American Jewish film director. Based on an autobiographical
novel and screenplay by Rula Jebreal, a Haifa-born Arab-Italian journalist with
an Israeli passport, it seemed that the Israeli-French- Italian-Indian
co-production starring Freida Pinto (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) was sure to
become an artistic and boxoffice success, offering challenging new insights into
the Palestinian psyche.
Instead Miral, which premiered on September 2 at
the Venice Film Festival and on the Italian circuit, failed to receive one
single star of recommendation in entertainment sections of newspapers. When
Schnabel was asked by an Italian journalist how he thought the film would be
received, he said, “I expect to be told that the other side of the coin is not
It was not my task to tell the whole story.”
did Schnabel choose not to tell the whole story, but he also shirked a
director’s responsibility of providing the historical framework necessary for
even his half of the story.
Glimpses of his characteristic camera work –
emotions captured without the use of words – that earned Schnabel international
acclaim for past films, such as Basquiat
, Before Night Falls
and The Diving Bell
and the Butterfly
, are evident in certain scenes. But on the whole, Miral is a
film with an absentee director.
Beginning with the aftermath of the 1947
massacre perpetrated by Jewish extremists in the Arab village of Deir Yassin
when Hind Husseini brought home 55 stranded orphans and founded the Dar Al Tifel
Jerusalem Orphanage and Educational Institution, the story covers half a century
and three generations of women. Moving through Haifa, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem
and a Palestinian refugee camp in Ramallah, the film focuses on the emblematic
life of Miral.
Flashbacks with archival footage mark a minimal selection
of significant events, such as Ben-Gurion’s Declaration of Independence speech,
the arrival of Jewish World War II refugees, bombs and smoke in Jerusalem in
1948 (without any explanation of what was happening or why), the 1967 war (also
without explanation), the first intifada, and reference to the failed
implementation of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Pinto, who plays Miral, bears a
striking resemblance to author Jebreal. The Miral- Jebreal fusion is epitomized
in the last scene when Jebreal’s face appears with subtitles stating that “Today
Miral travels the world as an international correspondent.”(For the
record, Jebreal, formerly a successful TV anchorwoman in Italy, is now living in
Montauk, New York, with Schnabel.)
MIRAL IS the daughter of a beautiful but
unhappy Israeli Arab woman from Haifa who, as child, had been repeatedly abused
by her father. She commits suicide after her marriage to Jamal, a devoted father
to Miral. Jamal entrusts his daughter to Husseini’s Dar Al Tifel Institute.
There Miral grows up, and while doing volunteer teaching in a Ramallah refugee
camp, becomes involved in the first intifada and falls in love with Khadun, a
In transposing Jebreal’s wellwritten autobiography to the
screen, the Schnabel-Jebreal team fails to capture two of the book’s strongest
One is Husseini’s ideal of education as the key to women’s
economic, physical and spiritual liberation in Arab society, as well as being
the key to Palestinian national liberation.
The second is that the
strategy of violence, espoused by Khadun, leads only to further death and
Verbal platitudes and stereotypes abound in the film. We are
told, “The origins of this conflict have far-off roots”; “These settlers living
here are our real cancer”; “We accepted the return of 22% of our land for peace”
(presumably a reference to 22% of the former British Palestine Mandate with an
invisible Green Line).
Without exception, the IDF is stereotyped as an
army of inhumane villains. In one episode, a massive IDF interrogator tries to
make Miral reveal the whereabouts of Khadun, keeping her seated so long that she
urinates in her chair. Then a massive female officer grabs her, covers her head
with a black hood and whips her soundly in another room. Equally inhumane are
the IDF soldiers who bulldoze a Palestinian home with only 10 minutes’ advance
notice and without any explanation, while the innocent townspeople watch in
silent dismay. It is worthy to note that no one seems to be aware that civilians
are simultaneously being blown up on Israeli streets by Palestinian
Such scenes may well reflect some repugnant truths. But
since the director is not projecting his story purely from within Miral’s mind,
one would assume he could produce at least a couple of human beings in the IDF
who are not heartless robots. Working for peace, as he claims to be, also
entails making purposeful artistic choices.
Finally, two fascinating
Palestinian characters, beautifully portrayed by Alexander Siddig and Hiam
Abbass, represent authentic people.
Miral’s father embodies the moral
values and refined traditional culture of the centuriesold Arab population that
survives in sections of Palestinian society today.
And Husseini’s life
merits a separate film. Miral recalls that in 1947, this independent Arab woman
from an ancient, wealthy, influential Palestinian family (first cousin of
political leader Faisal Husseini) created and for nearly 50 years ran the Dar Al
Tifel Institute, educating thousands of abandoned Palestinian girls and
progressively finding support from wealthy Arab sheikhs while managing to stay
out of politics. She believed in liberation for her people through culture as a
bulwark against all forms of repression and extremism.
struggle and the obstacles she must have encountered could inspire a
Palestinian-Israeli film team to produce a more worthy sequel to Miral.