'Slumdog' star plays Palestinian girl in 'Miral'

Julian Schnabel-directed movie focuses on Palestinian girl who wants to fight Israel and her father, based on biography of journalist Rula Jebreal.

Miral (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Indian actress who starred in Slumdog  Millionaire has moved from the slums of Mumbai to the squalid refugee camps of the West Bank in a new film: the story of a defiant Palestinian girl who wants to fight against Israel in a coming of age story with a Mideast twist.
Miral, directed by award-winning artist Julian Schnabel and with cameos by Willem Dafoe and Vanessa Redgrave, stands apart for more than its star power.
RELATED:Film Review: The bitter halfUS Jewish artists back Israeli counterparts' Ariel protestDue for US release in December, it's also likely to give Western audiences — some perhaps more used to movies depicting Arabs as violent Islamic extremists — a compassionate view of the Palestinians.
For Mumbai-raised Freida Pinto, 25, who became a star after Slumdog shot from obscurity to box-office success and eight Academy Awards, it was a chance for a different setting.
Miral sweeps across decades of the Mideast conflict. The cinematography lays out beautiful Palestinian landscapes and Pinto glows in her scenes. But the dialogue comes across at times as preachy, and Schnabel seems to try pack in as much Palestinian history as possible in the 112-minute film.
For the filmmakers, the message is the key.
"The ordinary American who knows nothing about Palestine and knows nothing about our cause — it will be the first time he will sit and watch this story," said Yasmine al-Massri, a 31-year-old Paris-based Palestinian actress who plays Pinto's mother.
At a news conference in Ramallah before the screening late Thursday, some Palestinian movie crew members said they hoped Pinto's star power would draw audiences into cinemas and that Schnabel's Jewish faith would deflect claims of bias.
"It's a Jewish American director who is telling a Palestinian story," said al-Massri.
Schnabel was named "best director" at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and awarded him a top prize for his movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Pinto brings wide experience to the role despite her youth. She is currently appearing as a neighbor of a conflicted writer in the latest Woody Allen movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and will co-star in the upcoming Greek mythology action tale Immortals and a Planet of the Apes prequel, Rise of the Apes.
In Miral, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last month, Pinto's title heroine is sent to a Palestinian children's institution in Jerusalem when her alcoholic mother commits suicide and her conservative Muslim father struggles to raise her.
Headstrong, Miral tumbles into the political storms lashing around her: it's the late 1980s and Palestinians are rebelling against Israel's military occupation. Miral tries to fight Israel and battle her father, at the same time as she falls for a handsome Palestinian fighter.
The movie was filmed over three months in 2009 with a crew of about 150 people and a budget of $15 million, according to local crew members.
It's based on the tumultuous biography of Palestinian-Italian journalist Rula Jebreal, stretching back in time to tell the stories of her mother, her mother's savior, a nurse hardened by war who tries to bomb an Israeli cinema, and her older mentor, the real-life figure of Hind Husseini, who rescued children during the war that followed Israel's creation.