The bitter half

In ‘Miral,’ Julian Schnabel’s feature film about Arab-Israeli relations, Israel is portrayed as the unequivocal villain.

Miral (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 represented.
It was not my task to tell the whole story.”
Not only 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 PLO activist.
In transposing Jebreal’s wellwritten autobiography to the screen, the Schnabel-Jebreal team fails to capture two of the book’s strongest messages.
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 destruction.
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 “activists.”
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.
Perhaps her struggle and the obstacles she must have encountered could inspire a Palestinian-Israeli film team to produce a more worthy sequel to Miral.