Julian Schnabel’s Controversial Movie

Movie Talk
Julian Schnabel Jemal Countess/Wireimage.com
Julian Schnabel Jemal Countess/Wireimage.com

"I make portraits of people. I don't like it when

people say I make biopics because I don't," Julian Schnabel said to me

this week. "The question is, does a Palestinian girl get to have her

portrait painted?"

As an artist, Schnabel is no stranger to controversy. His

paintings -- big, brash, imposing affairs -- have elicited some wildly

divergent opinions. Yet as a filmmaker, none of the handful of movies that he's

made, including the Oscar-nominated "The Diving Bell and the

Butterfly," has generated quite as much controversy as his latest movie,


When the film had its US premiere earlier this month at

the United Nations building, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee

slammed the movie, calling it "blatantly one-sided" arguing that it

portrayed Israel in a "negative light." And the AJC has not been shy

about lambasting the movie on other occasions. During its world premiere at the

Venice Film Festival, the AJC wrote: "Without exception, the IDF [Israeli

Defence Force] is stereotyped as an army of inhumane villains.... 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.'"

The Palestinian girl in question is author Rula Jebreal.

Her novel on which the movie is based is a strongly autobiographical account of

her youth in West Bank.

She struggles between the indignation over the

Israeli army's actions against her people during the first Intifada and her

longing for peace. Not surprisingly, Israel

doesn't come off looking good in the movie. But Schnabel, who is Jewish, is


"It's not my job to make a balanced story. I'm not

trying to get elected. I'm telling the story that's in her book. I'm telling

the story that she wrote...I think that people feel the threat of Palestinian

people being considered as human beings, which is ridiculous. It's a really a

civil rights film."

"Miral" first came to his attention in 2007

during an art show at Rome's

Palazzo Venezia. Jebreal, who looks uncannily like her on-screen alter ego

played by Frieda Pinto, approached him with a script. "When I met her, I

said to her, are you Indian?," he recalled. "She said to me, no I'm

Israeli." "So you're Jewish?" "No, I'm Palestinian."

At that moment, I must have had a strange look on my face, because she said

"Are you scared?" I said, "Should I be?"

Schnabel wasn't terribly fond of the script, which was

written by somebody else, but he loved Jebreal's book. He had her re-write the

screenplay, which hewed much closer to the novel. The first hour of the movie

details the life, not of the main character, Miral, but of Hind Husseini, the

woman who founded the Dar Al-Tifel Institute, the all-girls orphanage where

Jebreal was raised. Miral's worldview is very much informed by Husseini.

Schnabel felt that this inclusion was important for the movie.

"As a storytelling device, I thought anybody who was

human and sane and young that had been surrounded by this supportive

environment created by Hind would try to help their own people. Anybody would

try to help their own people."

His collaboration with Jebreal soon extended beyond the

movie: they are now in a relationship. "She's very pretty," he told

me with a wry smile.

Schnabel has only made four feature films, but those

movies have racked up a total of five Oscar nominations. His last movie,

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," received near-universal acclaim

and wound up on Yahoo! Movies' Modern Classics list.

Yet he considers himself a painter, treating filmmaking

as sideline to his main calling. He certainly didn't have the slick veneer one

usually encounters at a Hollywood press

junket. He dressed in his trademark pajama bottoms and a flannel shirt. He has

a restless charisma that brings to mind a wild animal. He doesn't talk in sound

bites; the last quarter of my interview with him consisted of a sustained

five-minute, long run-on sentence. Yet his enthusiasm for the movie and art in

general is contagious.

Schnabel doesn't plan to return to filmmaking any time

soon. He's booked up with exhibitions for the next two years. "I don't

make movies for the money. I don't do it for a career or a job. I did it

because I could."

"Miral" opens in selected cities on March 25.

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