Julian Schnabel's latest film tells the story a Palestinian teenage girl, and is inspiring both praise and controversy
"Is this the face of a terrorist?" asks the American poster for Julian Schnabel's new film, Miral, about a young Palestinian woman of the same name. Dressed as a schoolgirl, looking ten years younger than her actual age of 26, Freida Pinto stares back, the sullenness in her eyes a residue of shouldering the twin burdens of adolescence and occupation at once.
The mere prospect of two hours of a smoldering Pinto growing up, falling in love with a political activist, and reaching a few critical observations about the conflict was apparently enough to terrorize Jewish advocacy groups, who protested the United States premiere of the film at the United Nations General Assembly, where it was shown on March 15th. Despite having not seen the film, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee David Harris slammed it as having "a clear political message, which portrays Israel in a highly negative light," in a letter to the UNGA President, Ambassador Joseph Deiss.
If they had come to the screening—and Mr. Schnabel, in a panel after the film, specifically asked to see if anyone from the AJC was present—these critics would have seen a harmless, rather hapless coming-of-age story, where the ever-present politics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict meander into Miral's personal life, sometimes gracefully, sometimes stomping in on two left feet.
"There was a reason to show this story at the UN," said Schnabel—who, despite the AJC's resistance to the film, was raised by an actively Zionist mother—in an interview the next day. "It's a different practice that usually takes place there: people give speeches, people argue. But to see a film where as a group, everyone could watch a story about empathizing, that is a good tool to grease the wheels of understanding."
What was truly radical, said his partner Rula Jebreal, author of the autobiographical novel on which the film is based, is whose story it is telling. In a region where the overriding narrative is political, and where those politics consist largely of the bickering of old men, stories like Miral's fall by the wayside. As the opening credits roll, a quote appears on the screen: "Miral is a red flower. It grows on the side of the road. You've probably seen millions of them." Or, as Jebreal points out, you haven't seen those millions of flowers, because they've always been ignored.
"A movie has never been made, or brought to the big screen, about a Palestinian girl," she said. "It's an issue that has been censored, not just in film but also in the media."
The film begins in 1947, and then fast-forwards to 1948 and the aftermath of the Deir Yassin massacre that left over a hundred dead. An elegant, aristocratic woman, Hind Husseini, scoops up a gaggle of traumatized, newly-minted orphans from a street corner and installs them in a mansion left her by her father. Forty years later, Miral is a rebellious high school student at what Hind has turned into a top school for girls, Dar el-Tifel. When the 1987 intifada, or uprising, begins, Miral slips out of school to join the protests, where she meets the dashing, older activist Hani. He inflames her passions, both political and romantic, upsetting her father and Hind, who insist that education, not protesting, will bring a brighter future for Palestinians.