Controversy is nothing new for artist/director Julian Schnabel. When he stormed onto the art scene in the early ‘80s with his plate paintings, he drew criticism for his self-proclaimed importance and the infamous quote, “I’m the closest thing to Picasso you’ll see in this *#@ life.” When he later built his Palazzo Chupi in the West Village, styled after a Northern Italian palazzo and painted bright pink, the Greenwich Village for Historic Preservation called the structure, “woefully out of context and a monument to this guy’s ego.” So it should come as little surprise that Schnabel recently stirred controversy in the film and political landscape with the release of “Miral,” based on the book by Schnabel’s girlfriend Rula Jebreal about a Palestinian girl growing up in the midst of the endlessly bloody Arab-Israeli Conflict. Criticized as anti-semitic and pro-Palestinian, it drew protests from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
Schnabel has never been one to shy away from a subject for fear of who it might offend. When he’s inspired to do or say something, whether it be with his paintings, his films or even his brief flirtation with the architectural world, Schnabel does it; critics be damned. In fact, one might even start to think Schnabel thrives on the heat just a bit. After all, he’s definitely kept people talking about him.
“Miral” later gained additional notoriety when actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, who portrays Seikh Saabah in the film, was gunned down outside a theater in Jenin that had been established as a Palestinian refugee camp. The April 4th, 2011 assassination occurred only days after the U.S. release of “Miral.” The Playlist spoke with Schnabel this week on the eve of the July 12th release of the film on Blu-ray and DVD. The director was up-front about the fact that he doesn’t particularly love doing press and that he felt critics didn’t really give the film a fair shake.
Just before we begin our interview, Schnabel says, “I’m actually in a hammock rocking myself looking up at the sky through some trees, so it could be worse.”
Well here’s hoping the setting puts you in a relaxed state for our talk.
I’m leaning towards the divine light.
At the start of the process for “Miral,” Rula Jebreal gave you a copy of a screenplay adaptation that you weren’t particularly fond of and you decided to read the book. At that point, what was it that first drew you in and made you feel you should be the one to make the film?
Well, when I read it, I felt like I could have been her father. I felt like I watched her grow up. And that feeling of also the way a daughter looks at her father, I think that really touched me. Obviously the story is so harrowing, from Hind Husseini’s moment where she finds the 55 kids, I thought, “Well, how do I show 55 children being found in the street after something like that?” You start thinking about certain images and the results and I think also that women kind of bear the brunt of most of the horrors that men propagate. I wanted to tell a woman’s story. Also, as a Jewish person, and I have never been religious or thought of myself as a Jewish person, but certainly my mother said to me, “Go to Israel and you’re going to have this special feeling” and I don’t know that the feeling I had when I went there was the feeling that my mother wanted me to have. I thought it was my responsibility to kind of describe what was happening over there so we could find some sort of sane way to stop it.
[At this point in the interview, Schnabel’s end of the line goes dead. For a moment it’s possible that the director has dozed off in his relaxing hammock or that he is just done with the interview.]
I’m here. I’m sorry, my phone stopped. Where was I?
Your perspective was a unique one to tell this tale from, being Jewish but non-practicing and also relatively uninformed, as you’ve put it. It seems as though you were able to approach it without a lot of the inherent bias that would normally be associated with this tense subject.
I agree. I’m happy to hear you say that because I was proud to do it and I think that, I mean, why are we making things anyway? I certainly don’t do it for the money and I don’t do it because I want a job. If you feel like you can make art, make something and put it in this world and maybe it can have an effect on people so they can do something that’s more sane, then that’s it. It’s nice to be a blank page. It got filled up pretty quickly. And I was very satisfied with the response, even the attacks, because when people start to do that they show themselves. They have to support their reasons and a dialogue opens up and people start to really examine themselves. And that was all okay.
What was your reaction to the protests from the Anti-Defamation League and the accusations that the film is anti-semitic?
You know, anybody that criticizes a government is anti-semitic? In this country, if you criticize the government, they call you a patriarch because you want to fix these problems. There’s a debate, there’s an argument. Are we all supposed to be silent and if we disagree we’re anti-semitic, self-hating Jews? It’s just not the case. What was amazing and what was kind of great is when we showed the movie at the United Nations. AJC tried to stop Joseph Deiss, President of the General Assembly, from doing this and they couldn’t. The fact is that once they did that, other Jewish groups started to defend the film. It was beautiful because then you realize that some of these allegations are absolutely ridiculous.
We had an ‘R’ rating at first. There was nothing ‘R’ in the movie. It’s just very hard for people to accept that there’s a Palestinian narrative. We have to do that in the same way that all of these people wanted to be free in Egypt and Tunisia. It’s not Al-Qaeda or some radical group doing this. It’s just people that want the same kind of freedom that you and me have. Now a lot of these liaisons with dictators will have to deal with the Palestinians differently and hopefully some sane leaders can work something about. The landscape’s changing very radically around there. I went to the Palestinian Film Festival in Chicago and I saw rabbis talking about this in such a lucid way. I talked to Jewish people in Washington. I spoke with people at Columbia University.
You also drew some criticism for the casting of Freida Pinto in the lead role, although seeing her side-by-side with Rula on the Blu-ray, the visual similarities between the two women are striking
Exactly. Why would I pick somebody else? Just to shoot myself in the foot? Because somebody says, “Oh, she’s Indian?” And why shouldn’t an Indian person get to play a Palestinian? What’s the problem? The whole purpose of art is to break down barriers and I don’t know if I would have found a Palestinian person from Orange County that would have been more believable. I think people picked a lot of problems and picked on a lot of things just because they couldn’t deal with the subject matter.
With Rula on set during the filming, were there moments where you stepped aside and asked her if a scene looked right or maybe she tapped you on the shoulder and said something should be different?
Well, she never had to tap me on the shoulder because I always asked what she thought. I didn’t want to be a tourist making the movie and I felt like I had somebody that knew where all the skeletons were buried. I was very interested in what she had to say. She also opened many doors because she knew so many people in Jerusalem in the Arab community. We needed a Jewish person and an Arab person to kind of work on this and even Christian people to get into all of these different areas and locations. I did shoot the movie in Hind Husseini’s house and in the house where Rula’s mother was raped. It was important for me to go to all of these places. I shot a riot in the center of Ramla and the Palestinian Police were dressed up as Israeli soldiers. I liked it. I did it my way. I got very involved with Rula and we made it. I haven’t seen her now for a while. It was an intense experience. It’s all good.
What are your thoughts on the critical and commercial response to the theatrical release?
I didn’t get good reviews and I thought that the reviewers were really just basically all on the same Kool-Aid. I had beautiful responses from people like Bernardo Bertolucci, Johnny Depp, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and other filmmakers. I started to get different responses from these people because they were looking at it on a totally different plain and I think a lot of truth came out. It was like a litmus test. I think it did what I thought it would do and I hoped it to do more. But I think it’s going to have a long life on DVD. I certainly didn’t want this movie to go to VOD immediately. To have the opening at the U.N. was a big deal. I think it all worked and now the DVD is out and people can judge for themselves. With all the controversy, I think people heard a lot about it. I think a lot of people are curious about this topic.
“Miral” is on Blu-ray and DVD today. — Jeff Otto