Julian Schnabel strikes a surprisingly fearsome presence for a soft-bellied man known for dressing in pajamas. At last night’s Los Angeles premiere of his controversial new film, “Miral,” Schnabel startled the gathering of high-powered Hollywood types (including “The King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper, “Red Riding Hood” director Catherine Hardwicke, and actor Jared Harris) when he interrupted Javier Bardem as he stood at the front of the theater reading his introduction to the film and the man who made it from a folded piece of paper. “If you say one more word, you can leave,” Schnabel boomed at a young woman directing the crowd of late arrivals to open seats. “You’re interrupting Javier. Those people can sit later.”
The rest of the audience was stunned still, reflexively fearful of suffering a similar fate as the poor woman who went scurrying out of the theater. Then, without missing a beat, Bardem continued his encomium of a film in which he has no role beyond his friendship to Schnabel, who cast him in his breakout role as Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in “Before Night Falls.” “I am so proud of my friend who has found the courage and the means to share his message of hope and humanity with the world,” said Bardem. “He has made a film whose beauty has inspired UN leaders and continues to touch people on a human level.”
In an industry fueled by a desire to be loved (if not liked), there is something admirable about Schnabel’s willingness to stand up for what he believes and do the unpopular thing. First as a painter and now as a filmmaker, Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) has never shied away from provocative subject matter or spent much time worrying about how he’s perceived by the establishment — be it the art world, Hollywood, or, in the case of “Miral,” the American Jewish Committee. Based on Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal‘s memoir about growing up in the Israeli-occupied West Bank amid the ongoing Israeli siege to rid the area of Palestinians and the home-grown terrorist response to the situation, the film explores the dehumanizing impact of living in an occupied state through the experiences of several generations of Palestinian women. It culminates with the title character leaving the safety of her walled-off all-girls school to teach refugee children, then ending up getting involved with the resistance movement when she witnesses Israeli bulldozers demolishing her people’s encampments. Though the film is not overtly political, it is striking for its unblinking depiction of the hardships Palestinians face by being denied the same rights as Israelis in a country to which they feel just as entitled to call home.
Because the film community has historically and famously attracted a high quotient of Jewish artists and executives, it’s rare to see a film cast such a critical eye on Israelis, especially when dealing with subject matter as incendiary and divisive as the Israel-Palestine conflict. As a result, “Miral” drew fierce protests from prominent Jewish groups who campaigned to stop the film’s New York premiere from taking place at the United Nations in front of an audience of diplomats. Despite complaints that the film portrayed Israelis in a negative light, the UN screening went off without a hitch and the controversy has only provided a broader platform for Schnabel to explain his intentions and vision for the film.
“I read Rula Jebreal’s book and I thought: What a beautiful story!” Schnabel told Salon. “There’s a lot of forgiveness that’s in this book. Not just because she loves the State of Israel. She is Israeli, and her family lives there. She wants a democratic state for everybody that lives there, not just for Jewish people. I think that’s totally reasonable! It sounds like the United States. I think everybody that lives in Israel — whatever you want to call them, Palestinian or Israeli — should all have the same rights.”
Despite his humane intentions, it’s hard to imagine how a flamethrower like Schnabel could have made the film (and survived its heated aftermath) if he weren’t Jewish himself. In fact, his mother was president of the Brooklyn chapter of Hadassah, a Zionist women’s organization; and his father belonged to B’nai B’rith, a well-known Jewish humanitarian advocacy group. That grounding in the Jewish perspective put Schnabel in a unique position to be able to capture the Palestinian perspective without risking that “Miral” be dismissed as militant propaganda filmmaking.
In some ways, Schnabel is already living the dream of harmonious Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. While working on “Miral,” he and Jebreal fell in love and are now in a committed relationship. Perhaps their example, if not the film, can serve as an example of how the differences between the cultures can and must be resolved. If nothing else, Schnabel hopes to awaken audiences to a new perspective on an age-old conflict. After Bardem finished his introduction, Schnabel and Jebreal took the stage together. “It’s my job to protect my actors,” explained Schnabel of his earlier outburst. “Rula Jebreal’s book allowed me to put myself in the shoes of a Palestinian sixteen-year-old girl,” he said, looking lovingly at Jebreal, a regal beauty who has worked as a journalist for Italian TV. Jebreal then perfectly summed up the film’s peculiar alchemy: “I never imagined my story would become a movie,” she said. “And I certainly never suspected it would have been directed by a Jewish man.”
Mural opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, March 25.