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Miral – Julian Schnabel interview

Julian Schnabel directs Miral

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED director Julian Schnabel talks about some of the challenges and issues concerning the film Miral, as well as shooting on location in east Jerusalem and working with author Rula Jebreal.

He also discusses the negative reaction to the movie by some critics. He was speaking at a press conference held during the London Film Festival.

Q. You read Rula Jebreal’s novel and that was how your exposure to this story started. Did you think immediately that potentially this could be a film?
Julian Schnabel: First of all, it’s actually not a novel. I thought it was when I first read it, but it’s really an autobiography. I guess fact is stranger than fiction. When I read it I thought that if I make another film in my life this was the film I should make. I felt a responsibility to it. I really had no plan. Whatever else I was doing I sort of shelved and thought I should devote myself to doing this.

Q. How did you go about writing the script with Rula Jebreal?
Julian Schnabel: I read the book and I felt that the relationship with her father was so impressive and so beautiful that I felt like I watched her grow up. But when I read some of the other parts in the book I had a few more questions. I met Rula in 2007 and wanted to know more about certain characters. She has since made an addendum to the book. So, there are things that we put in the script and things that she added to the book. Obviously, you don’t want to put in things that are incriminating in some way. But in another sense, I could always say I made it up and turned it into a movie.

But the fact is there were things that she said to me on the day that we were working about her father, about different things… there’s a line in the movie where Hani says to Miral: “The United Nations and the Arab nations are not our allies; it’s really the Israeli’s themselves.” We were in the old city and there was a man who had been in prison for 17 years who was in the popular front and who had killed people that were supposed to be collaborators and he said: “When I was in jail, I noticed that the fears of my jailers were the same as mine. And our real allies were the Israelis and not the Arab regimes and the United Nations.” So, we put it in the movie.

Q. Obviously this movie was very difficult to make. So, how was shooting on location and why did you choose the filming style you opted for?
Julian Schnabel: I used a 35mm camera for everything. I used it in a way that’s very physical and hand-held because when things are frenetic and chaotic I think they need to be shot like that. Also, I used different kinds of stock, so the beginning of the movie look like Exodus in a way… it has this technicolor look to it. When you get to see Nadia’s life, I used a Fuji film that was more reversal stock. I look at it like a painting, so whatever the story is, at a certain moment the logic of imagery and sound takes over. Laurie Anderson’s music, for example, I felt captured this sort of nervous strain in that part of the world, so it’s sort of repeated as a light motif as it goes through different moments of crisis – whether the building is being knocked down, or when Hind finds the kids, or the two girls are driving through the landscape.

Q. And difficulties?
Julian Schnabel: I needed people, I needed Palestinian people and I needed Israeli people. I had help from the Mayor of Jerusalem who basically just said: “How can I help you?” I just replied: “Basically, don’t ask me too many questions…” And he didn’t. He told me to work with the local communities. I actually showed him the movie about a week ago in New York and he’s going to host a screening of it in Jerusalem. As far as working with the crew, I wanted to have Palestinian people on the crew also… I thought it was very important, especially because I wanted to have access to certain places. For example, we actually shot in Hind Husseini’s house. I didn’t want to feel like we were an occupying army.

It was three days after Gaza that I started to go in there, so I asked the Israeli crew to speak English in the Arab neighbourhood and they did. I’m a Jewish person and they let me shoot in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which has never been allowed to happen before. I also shot the scene where the rally turns into a mess in the middle of Ramallah, so the Palestinian people were very, very good to me. A kid got up and he grabbed the megaphone and said: “This man is doing this for us, so let’s give him the best we can!” I actually shot the scene where Nadia was raped in the house where she was raped. That was a little difficult because there was an Israeli location manager who went on his property without permission… but I think what Frieda Pinto has said about just respecting people on both sides, you’ll always get more from them if you respect them. You want to be respected too. So, this man was very hostile because somebody invaded his house. But Rula went there a few times and talked to him and I went there and the man let us shoot in the house. That kind of thing happened all the time.

If you look at the credits, we had a lot of help from both sides. But I never felt like I was in danger. Maybe I’m unconscious and I didn’t know any better but I never felt like I was in danger… I was just in the trajectory of making the film and people seemed to lean towards the divine light with me and I had a great crew. The Israeli camera crew was excellent. They were fast. Everyone had been in the army and they had seen all sorts of permutations of violence and I think everybody wanted peace. It felt like that’s what we were doing… trying to unearth some of these truths. I had a very good feeling about it.

Q. Does the character of Lisa [played by your daughter] – who sympathises with both sides – really exist?
Julian Schnabel: Yes, Lisa is Lisa and she actually lives in Boston now and Rula and Lisa are still friends. There was not an intention to try to show a ‘good Israeli’, it just happened that she – this girl – was someone who didn’t really care what her parents did and where they came from. She just saw herself and Rula as two young girls living in the middle of that conflict and they were drawn to each other. They didn’t take on their parents’ problems. It’s funny because her boyfriend, Sameer, was played… when Freida’s character goes to the American colony hotel at the end and there’s a tall black man who is the security guard… that was Lisa’s boyfriend. So, it’s all real.

Q. Have you been surprised by some of the negative reactions to the movie?
Julian Schnabel: I am surprised by some of those responses also. It’s easier to show a Palestinian terrorist and have sympathy for them somehow, or admit that they exist, than make a movie about a little girl. I have a divorce lawyer that I know, a friend of mine who saw the movie, who said it’s really easier to hate somebody in some robes with a Kalishnikov and a beard than these little kids in these uniforms.

So, as a painter, if I want to make a portrait – say of you – I would make a portrait of you, and not this guy over here who you might not know. Is a Palestinian girl entitled to have a portrait painted of her? The movie is not pro-Palestinian, it’s just about a Palestinian person. As a Jewish person, I felt like I needed to make this movie and the fact that I am a Jewish person doing that, an American Jew from New York City making a movie like that, is a radical declaration in some kind of way. People have to see it… they can’t marginalise it, or localise it and say well this is from somebody over there, about that. So, maybe that has something to do with the reaction.

But I think as people see the movie… a guy wrote me a letter the other day and said: “I went to see the movie having heard all of these things [negative] about it and I didn’t find it like that at all.” So, the audience response seems to be different from the critical one. When we were in Venice, for instance, there was a standing ovation for 15 minutes, but then I read somewhere that people didn’t like it. So, I mean people actually lie about the response to it sometimes. It’s very interesting. I thought it would be good to have a discussion about these issues and I guess we are going to get that.

Read our review of Miral