The New York-born artist and filmmaker needed to employ a delicate balance when filming in the Middle East.
Director Julian Schnabel on his latest film Miral
The New York born artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel knew that if he made a film about the Middle East conflict he was going to be accused of bias - probably by both sides. The flamboyant artist is no stranger to controversy and from Miral's first screening at the Venice Film Festival he was ready to take all criticism on the chin.
"I am fair and balanced, in that I'm true to myself," he says. "I wouldn't know if I was being fair or unfair [in the treatment of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict]. I made a film that was true. I read Rula Jebreal's book and I saw images, relationships and the possibility of a story."
The Jewish-American filmmaker read Jebreal's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name as Schnabel's film after he met the Palestinian author while exhibiting some of his paintings at the Palazzio Venezia in Rome. He recalls: "We started to talk and she said that a script had been written of her book and she wasn't sure what she thought of it. She said she'd like me to look at it. I said to her that I probably would not like it because I almost never like things that are given to me. Also, I thought she was very beautiful and I didn't want to say: 'I'm a movie director and I'm going to make a movie of your script.'"
Schnabel is concerned about how his relationship with the author is perceived because after that memorable meeting in Rome and during the course of adapting Miral from page to screen, the two fell in love. It was this relationship that seems to have forced the twice-divorced Schnabel to look more closely at his own life and his own roots.
His mother was president of Hadassah, the women's Zionist Organisation of America, in 1948. Schnabel says he spent most of his life as an artist paying little heed to his Jewish inheritance. He feels now that this background helped him to tell the story from the other side, to make a film about Middle Eastern politics from the perspective of a Palestinian woman.
The film opens with the titular character Miral (Freida Pinto) stating that although she was born in 1973, her story actually begins in 1948. The action then cuts to a middle-class Palestinian woman, Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), discovering a group of orphans abandoned in post-war Jerusalem in 1948. She takes them in and sets up a school to educate them.
Abbas knows very well the real school that is the focus of the film, "I know the school because I used to work in a theatre that was next door to it," she says. She also was amazed by the commitment to the children shown by her character: "I think it was important to understand that she gave up her life for the school. We used the fact that she doesn't have a relationship with the Willem Dafoe character to show this. It's to show she gave up the woman she is, to sacrifice herself to the place."
The film shows the school remaining open - largely thanks to the determination of its female founder - and Miral (Pinto) becomes a pupil there. During the first intifada, she becomes involved with a resistance group determined to bring about the fall of Israel. This angers her father (Alexander Siddig), who is concerned she will put herself in danger.
Schnabel admits he didn't like the first script Jebreal sent him. He then asked to read the book and thought its original form was more like a film. He then set about putting his own visual stamp on it. The aesthetic emphasis applied to his three previous films, Basquiat, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is once again evident here.
"Sometimes when the subject matter is so strong you don't see how the film is made," he adds as part of a general ramble on the production of the film. "You can't separate the content from the form. I noticed watching the world premiere in Venice that as you watch you see camera movements, and after a certain while you accept a certain concert of ways of doing things and you don't even notice the cuts any more.
"There's a velocity - it starts slower and then all of a sudden you have all these things you're looking at, and I just think that the way the story is told, Miral only turns up about an hour into the movie, but by the time you get to see her you have a kind of genealogical, genetic or behavioural-genetic understanding of who she is, vis-à-vis all the other characters you've seen up until that time."
Jebreal worked closely with Schnabel in the production of the film. And her involvement meant the director was able to get access to many of the original locations, including mosques. Schnabel describes the process of securing locations as a series of long, intense negotiations: "The mayor of Jerusalem said, you have to talk to the members of the local community - that's how to do it. He was extremely helpful, but you have to think that if you have seen three days previously kids with their heads cut off, all bloody on Al Jazeera and there's this huge war going on, and then you go into an Arab neigbourhood and I have a Jewish crew and there are people on radios talking Hebrew they are going to seem like an invading army, so I asked them to speak in English to be respectful, and they did. On occasion, when somebody didn't, like the location manager, we actually lost locations. We realised there was a certain way to do it, and there has to be respect on both sides."
Schnabel often portrays himself as someone who doesn't care what others think; he attends premieres wearing pyjamas and is uncompromising in interviews. He once famously lay on his back on a table in Cannes while giving interviews.
Yet the 58-year-old artist knows his work succeeds if it can connect with an audience: "It's emotional, what we're talking about. Either you have a response or you don't care. What do you do and feel when you say you like something - what does that mean? You can't say you don't like the story, but I like this part of it, or that character. Your movie is as strong as its weakest moment. Like with a painting, if you have a bad corner, the painting is terrible. So somebody has to believe the fiction you've created, the novel, the body, but if somebody doesn't believe, then I've got a problem. It's as simple as that."
The film marks another remarkable chapter in the director's biography. He rose to prominence as an artist in the early 1980s, participating in the Venice Biennale in 1980. His most famous works are his "plate paintings", which are large-scale paintings on broken ceramic paints.
As a movie director, he seems obsessed with looking at unique individuals living and working in seemingly impossible circumstances. His protagonists never triumph in the traditional sense, but through the course of his films they always learn something about themselves and the milieu in which they operate. It seems this project more than any other has enabled Schnabel to think about his own roots and where he has come from. As for the answers, at times it does seem like he's still trying to work out what exactly the question is.
Abbass says of Schnabel: "His films are different, and I think the beginning of this movie reminds me a lot of his style from The Diving Bell. I can see the painter's eye behind this work that connects his four movies together, but he does deal with them in a different way. I would say the only difference between himself and a traditional director is that Julian really throws everything in there - the brushes, the water and everything. But it's really good to see this artist mix all these elements together to get his shot. As an actor, you have to abandon yourself to his vision."