‘I don’t make movies to make money’: Julian Schnabel on 'Miral'

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The director of 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' is brushing aside criticism of his new film, finds Cath Clarke

‘I don’t make movies to make money,’ Julian Schnabel, the Brooklyn-born artist and director, tells me as he sprawls out on a sofa in a London hotel like a sultan taking a nap. He doesn’t say it, but the director of ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ has more reliable methods of turning a buck. Paintings and property are his thing: after a spot of real-estate bother last year, he sold a Picasso for $7.8 million.

He continues: ‘I hate to say: “I’m an artist” – like, so what, right? But I’m just trying to make art. To make something that has meaning. That is worth putting into the world.’ His tone is doleful, even defensive. Which could have something to do with a few stinking reviews for his latest film ‘Miral’, starring ‘Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto, which comes out next week.

However flawed the 59 year old’s new film may be, it’s hard to think of another American director with enough bottle to go anywhere near a defiantly pro-Palestinian story (although Schnabel disputes that’s the angle of his film). ‘Miral’ follows three generations of Palestinian women, beginning with the birth of the state of Israel in 1948, and powerfully conveys the asphyxiating effect that 40 years of conflict has had on the Palestinian psyche. What’s more, Schnabel is Jewish. His mother was the president of a women’s Zionist organisation: ‘She devoted her whole life to Israel.’  Schnabel says he’s not political and never gave much thought to the conflict before Rula Jebreal gave him her autobiographical novel ‘Miral’.

A Palestinian-born journalist living in Italy, 37-year-old Jebreal approached Schnabel at a show of his paintings in Rome and asked for his advice on a script based on her book. He hated the script but asked for a copy of the book: ‘“This is more like it,” I told her. “This is more like a movie.”’

Schnabel bought the rights (‘which cost quite a bit’) and Jebreal wrote a new script. Somewhere along the line, Schnabel and Jebreal became a couple and he divorced his wife: ‘Through the process we fell in love with each other. But it wasn’t… falling in love sounds trite almost.’

The film intertwines two stories, beginning with Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), an indefatigable Palestinian woman who opened an orphanage in Jerusalem in 1948. Years later, around the time of the first Intifada in 1987, one of her pupils, 17-year-old Miral (based on Jebrael and played by Pinto), is politicised after witnessing abuses at the Ramallah refugee camp.

Schnabel has taken stick for casting an Indian to play Miral, a Palestinian but, as he says, the resemblance between Pinto and Jebrael is uncanny: ‘They look like twins.’ Which is not to say that Pinto is convincing. She looks awkward, having to recite clunky dialogue (the film is mostly in English). Here she is with her PLO activist lover, during a risky midnight tryst. They snog, and she says: ‘Why can’t it be one country for everybody? Where we have the same rights, like a democracy.’ He says: ‘It’s too soon for that. We should have two states, an Israeli and a Palestinian.’ They snog again.

Sure, it’s a heavy subject, but ‘Miral’ suffers from a heaviness unseen until now in Schnabel’s films. They’ve all been so alive emotionally: think of the friendships in ‘Basquiat’ and the relationship between a father and his son in ‘Diving Bell’. It’s hard to argue with Schnabel’s pursuit of authenticity, though. He shot ‘Miral’ in Israel and Palestine, sometimes at the exact locations where events occurred. Travelling with Jebrael was a revelation, says Schnabel, and she was on the set throughout, checking each frame. ‘I wanted it to look like an Arab made the film,’ Schnabel offers. ‘I think it does.’ The crew was a mix of Israeli and Palestinian, as well as French. ‘It was a peace mission. The credits look like Daniel Barenboim’s orchestra.’

Schnabel can be self-aggrandising like this. At the premiere of ‘Miral’ in London, he made a brass-neck request for a three-minute silence after the film. He wore his trademark pyjamas as he dominated the stage, leaving his writer, producer and cast in the shade. In the comfort of the hotel, he sticks to tracksuit bottoms. But he wears his heart on his sleeve, and is, I think, more or less sincere.

As for those reviews, at Venice in September The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it a ‘belly flop’. It wasn’t an all-out drubbing: ‘Thought-provoking… rich in compassion and drama’, came the verdict of Screen International. Schnabel points out that there was a 15-minute standing ovation at Venice: ‘Nobody wrote about that.’ He sighs heavily.

Is he worried about what the powerful Jewish-American lobby will have to say about his pro-Palestinian film? ‘Can anybody say anything about Palestinian people that is positive?’ he asks. ‘Are you allowed to do that?’ He says he has always rooted for the Jews, still does. ‘And “Miral” is not pro-Palestinian, it’s about Palestinians.’ Did he ever wonder if this was someone else’s story to tell? Another sigh. ‘I just painted a portrait of this Palestinian girl’s life. And that’s the question: is she entitled to have her portrait painted? It’s not everybody’s story. I mean, if I did “The Diary of Anne Frank”, it’d be about Anne Frank. This is about Miral Shahin.’



Read our review of 'Miral' here

Author: Cath Clarke



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