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The Man Behind ‘Miral’ Defends His Work, and No One Stopped Him

As a young boy, Julian Schnabel accompanied his parents to a grand Broadway theater to see a screening of “Exodus” — the 1960 melodrama that depicts the founding of the state of Israel. During a scene in which Jewish refugees launch into a celebratory rendition of “Hatikvah,” Schnabel recalls how moviegoers, his family included, leapt to their feet, put their hands over their hearts and sang along.

“Every time there was a battle, and certainly during the Six Day War, I was absolutely thrilled that the Israelis won,” Schnabel, the painter and Academy Award-nominated director of the 2007 film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” said in a recent interview.

The “Exodus” narrative on which Schnabel was raised, as the son of a Hadassah chapter president, exists in sharp contrast to the one that he presents in his latest film, “Miral.” The movie is based on the autobiographical novel by Schnabel’s girlfriend, Rula Jebreal. The film’s title character is a motherless Palestinian girl, growing up in an East Jerusalem orphanage and coming of age during the first intifada.

“Miral” is dedicated “to everyone on both sides who still believe peace is possible.” Yet the Israelis depicted onscreen — soldiers bulldozing homes and countering rock-throwing with machine-gun fire, wardens whipping political prisoners and settlers building homes in Arab population centers because, as one character puts it, “what they really want is all of Palestine” — don’t necessarily come across as the peace-seeking sort.

The film garnered criticism from some of Israel’s supporters in advance of its March 14 screening at the hall of the United Nations General Assembly. Haim Waxman, Israel’s deputy ambassador to the U.N., asked the General Assembly’s president, Joseph Deiss, to reconsider the decision to host the screening. So too did David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

“The film has a clear political message, which portrays Israel in a highly negative light,” Harris wrote in a March 13 letter to Deiss. “Permit me to ask you why the President of the General Assembly would wish to associate himself — and the prestige of the office — with such a blatantly one-sided event.”

The day after the screening, which went on as planned, Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement that the screening marked “another sad day in the 63-year-old history of the U.N.’s bias against the state of Israel.”

In an interview conducted in a conference room of Palazzo Chupi — the hot-pink West Village, Manhattan apartment building that Schnabel developed and calls home — the filmmaker weighed in on what he thinks is behind the allegations that “Miral” is anti-Israel.

“Maybe it’s the simple fact that a high-profile film written by a Palestinian is cause enough for Jewish opprobrium,” said Schnabel, who arrived wearing what has become a signature uniform: plaid shirt, pajama bottoms and sunglasses. “Maybe it’s because the director of the film, Julian Schnabel, is Jewish, and his commitment to any perspective other than the Jewish paradigm is akin to tribal and national betrayal.”

Schnabel has insisted that the making of “Miral” was always an artistic endeavor — never an attempt to encapsulate the entire Arab-Israeli conflict. “I’m not a politician, and I’m not a historian, and I know that there are lots of other stories that can be told,” the 59-year-old artist and filmmaker said during a panel discussion that followed the U.N. screening. “But I thought I’d just try to tell this story — and it’s about a family. And my goal was… to see if the audience could care about these characters.”

Implicitly taking on those who say the film fails to present both sides of the conflict, he compared his movie-making style to portraiture and asked: “Can a Palestinian girl get her portrait painted? Or do we have to include an Israeli girl also in order to justify the existence of a Palestinian girl? I think not.”

“Miral” is not without its Jewish supporters. The dovish Israel lobby J Street defended Schnabel and Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Company is distributing the film. J Street issued a statement saying that it opposes “any efforts to limit ‘Miral’s’ distribution, as we would with any artistic effort to tell the important Israeli-Palestinian story from either people’s perspectives.” BoomGen Studios, a company doing publicity for the film, issued a press release touting J Street’s statement, and also support for the film by Jewish Voice for Peace and American Jews for a Just Peace, two groups that are fiercely critical of Israel and far outside the mainstream of the Jewish community.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, spoke highly of “Miral” when he took part in the panel discussion following the U.N. event. Kula, who will host a post-screening conversation with the filmmakers on March 31 at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, told the Forward that the opposition to the film is indicative of how “Israel has become the third rail in American Jewish life” and how “the conflict has crowded out human stories.”

Schnabel, a painter, originally made a name for himself in New York’s art scene. He went on to a successful career in film, with his biopics of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (“Basquiat”) and the magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was left paralyzed after a massive stroke (“Diving Bell”).

His investment in his latest project has become profoundly personal. First he fell in love with Jebreal’s novel, then he fell in love with its author.

The two met, back in 2007, in Rome, where she was working as a television anchorwoman and his artwork was the subject of a retrospective. As they tell it, Schnabel approached Jebreal at a party and inquired into her ethnic background; the two struck up a conversation, during which he asked to read something she had written. She sent him a copy of “Miral,” and within a few months they were working together to adapt the story for the big screen. The collaboration sparked a romance between the American Jewish director, who was married at the time, and the Palestinian Muslim journalist, the single mother of a daughter, Miral, now 14.

Jebreal, who said she admires Israeli authors David Grossman and Amos Oz, and draws inspiration from the Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi’s account of his year at Auschwitz, said “Miral,” though written as a novel, is essentially her own story: Like her character, she was sent to live at the Arab Children’s House at age 5, after her mother committed suicide by walking into the sea; she was raised by Hind al-Husseini, the Palestinian woman who founded the orphanage, and by her pious father, whom she would visit on weekends. Eventually, she earned a scholarship to study in Italy.

Even now, at age 37, a successful journalist and the author of three books, Jebreal said she often feels “uncomfortable admitting to being Palestinian” because of prejudices in the West. “One of the reasons I’m proud and happy this movie is here is that it will break some of those taboos about who are the others, who are the Palestinians — and see them as humans,” she said.

Schnabel said that the process of making the film, shot in Israel and the West Bank, exposed him to different perspectives on the conflict and gave him a greater understanding of the history and lived experiences of the Palestinians. He explained, for example, that growing up, he had heard all about the deadly 1948 Arab attack on the Jewish doctors and nurses en route to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital; but it wasn’t until he read “Miral” that he heard about the massacre of Arab villagers at Deir Yassin, which took place just four days earlier.

“Jean Renoir said that the problem with the world is that everybody’s got their reasons,” Schnabel said, during the interview at Palazzo Chupi. “There’s no reason good enough for a child to die, whether it’s an Israeli child or a Palestinian child. And the insanity of what’s going on over there just has to stop and people, nonviolent people, have to have a revolution, and they have to stop accepting the logic of fanatics on both sides. I mean they have to get rid of their leaders. You can’t follow Hamas, and you can’t follow Bibi Netanyahu. These people are nuts, all of them.”

Even if he’s not keen on the current Israeli government or its policies, Schnabel said that like his parents before him, he cares deeply about the future of the state. “My mother drove my father crazy selling youth aliyah tickets and trying to build a tree in Israel or getting things for the Hadassah Hospital,” he told the crowd gathered at the U.N. screening. “She really believed in this utopic democratic place — and I do too. But it can’t exist like this. I think the settlements are an absolute impossibility.”

“Miral” opens March 25 in New York and Los Angeles, and the Weinstein Company is trying to capitalize on the controversy. A full-page ad for the film in The New York Times, featuring a drawing of the movie’s protagonist staring through barbed wire shaped into a Star of David, bills “Miral” as “the movie they tried to stop.”

The Weinstein Company did not return a call seeking comment.

Contact Gabrielle Birkner at [email protected]

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