I have been lax in documenting and reviewing the movie "Miral", the new movie directed by Julian Schnabel ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", one of my top 10 movies of the last decade). On a recent visit to New York about two weeks ago, I happened upon the opportunity to watch the movie, followed by a Q&A session with Schnabel himself, and with the writer of the screenplay and the memoir upon which the movie was based, Israeli Palestinian Rula Jebreal.
Jebreal's book is also named "Miral"; the movie and the book are the story of her youthful experiences growing up a Palestinian in Jerusalem, as well as stories about her mother and about a remarkable woman--named Hind Hussein--who started an orphanage and school there in the aftermath of the chaos around the creation of the Israeli state in 1947. Rula Jebreal was "Miral", a character named after a flower that grows by the side of the road in that region, and she grew up in the orphanage, attending the school, after the suicide of her mother (I believe it was the early '70's).
Filmed in a variety of great locations in Israel and the West Bank, the movie shows the misery and strife of military occupation from the point of view of Palestinians. Rula/Miral has the status of being an Israeli citizen, as her ancestors never left, and finds her identity as a Palestinian as a teenager. Miss Hind, the towering figure of the orphanage/school for some 40 years from the time she founded it, provides hope for the young girls there and does her best to protect them from the dangers of the intifada (uprising). At the story's end, she arranges for Miral to go to Italy to attend university, then dies, a local hero.
Rula's experiences include an infatuation with a young intifada leader who first supports the Al Fatah (PLO) position, then runs afoul of them and is killed as an accused traitor; she is taken by the Israeli authorities, interrogated, then blindfolded, bound, and beaten; her Israeli citizenship saved her from more prolonged imprisonment. Still, her experiences are not nearly as harsh as those the film recounts of her mother, who was abused and degraded, falsely imprisoned by the Israelis, and afterwards could not live with herself. Miral's "father" (the parentage was shown not to be biological) is one of the few positive male characters, a complicated character who was a devout Muslim, loyal to Miral's mother despite her infidelity, and a loving father, yet one who gives up custody of his daughter to the orphanage.
Beyond the range of the movie's story, Rula Jebreal became a journalist in Italy (as she said, "the first 'black' TV presenter there"). She spoke passionately at the Q&A session of her desire to raise awareness in the world of the plight of the Palestinians, though affirming her love of the area and acknowledging that she loves Israel as well. One thing she does not accept, and of which her life is testimony, is the Zionist notion that Israel is a Jewish state; though she came to have Jewish friends and appreciate their culture (some of which is shown in the movie), she wants a unitary state for all who live there.
The film is deeply affecting, though perhaps not as much as Schnabel's "Diving Bell". Frieda Pinto, the female lead of the smash 2009 movie "Slumdog Millionaire", is a bit of a controversial choice for the difficult role of Miral, but I will say that she brings to it something like the limpid beauty which I witnessed that evening from Rula herself. Her father was played by an actor, Alexander Siddig, who seemed very familiar but I could not place: turns out he was a regular, Dr. Bashir, on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" (not a great recommendation, I know). The other two key roles, both very challenging to portray, were those of Hind Hussein and of Miral's mother Nadia, played by more conventional Palestinian actresses, Hiam Abbass and Yasmine El Masri, respectively. Willem Dafoe and Vanessa Redgrave both lent their presence to the movie, though their roles are relatively small and peripheral to the story.
Schnabel spoke of the difficulty in getting official permissions to film in many locations, but also of the cooperation and passionate support for his effort that he sometimes found, and of the beauty of the region. (There is an extensive listing in the credits of each of the scenes and where it was shot.) He is known primarily as a painter, and is the son of prominent Jewish leaders, but has taken a courageous, independent political stance with this effort. He has run into some resistance from the Hollywood community, not too surprising considering the subject matter; he didn't need their help to make the film, but he will need it (and will not get it) to get broad enough distribution for him and Rula to accomplish their aim of raising political awareness. They may have to settle for the satisfaction of telling a compelling story beautifully, as both their political aims and commercial success will no doubt lie beyond their capability.
P.S. I have to mention the scene when Miral and her cousin's Jewish girlfriend are hanging out in an apartment in Jaffa, listening to Pete Townshend's spoken introduction to the first cut in his album of demos and rarities, "Scoop" (a personal favorite). It provides the occasion for Miral to be informed of the existence of something called "The Who". Not too critical, except to illustrate the degree that Miral's upbringing in her school was both sheltered and deprived of exposure to the outside world.