Julian Schnabel Interview, Miral

Julian Schnabel is an American artist and filmmaker. In the 1980s, Schnabel received international media attention for his “plate paintings”—large-scale paintings set on broken ceramic plates. Schnabel directed “Before Night Falls”, which became Javier Bardem’s breakthrough Academy Award nominated role and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, which was nominated for four Academy Awards.

He has won a Golden Globe, as well as BAFTA, a César Award, a Golden Palm, two nominations for the Golden Lion and an Academy Award nomination. I called Julian on July 11, 2011 and had something of an interview with him about his latest film, “Miral” (though, as you can see, he was clearly passionate and dominated the discussion).

GS: The DVD cover and press release has plenty of glowing praises for “Miral”. Did you receive negative feedback about the film?

JS: A lot.

GS: Such as?

JS: I think that it questioned and threatened a lot of views and preconceptions that people had about the situation. And it presented Palestinian people as human beings, which I think bothers some people. I think that it presented a Palestinian narrative that is important for us to understand if we’re going to make peace.

GS: I’d agree.

JS: I got some great reviews also. Hard to find, but one of them was from Carl Reiner — he left me a message on my answering machine. “Hey Julian, this is Carl Reiner. I saw your film with Lucas (his son)and I have to tell you it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year and one of the most important films I’ve seen in recent years. Everyone needs to see it.” He left his telephone number and told me to call it if I wanted to be lauded. So I’d rather have that review than Roger Ebert giving me two thumbs down.

GS: Right.

JS: I think the film tested people’s comfort. I’m proud of it, though, and wouldn’t change a thing. We showed it at the United Nations to the General Assembly with 1600 people in attendance — it looked pretty impressive. I don’t know, how did you feel about the film?

GS: I loved the film, and you nailed the reason why. I was sold by the fact that the characters are, as you say, human. The politics is more in the background, despite obviously being a very political topic.

JS: And even when you do that, people cannot accept the politics. Somebody told me that they saw the film at the White House, a couple of weeks before Obama gave his speech about the 1967 borders. That’s cool. I don’t make films to make money. I do it as part of my process as an artist. I just thought I was being useful. Like Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I wanted to know what I could do with this material. I think anyone who kills a child is a murderer, whether it is a Palestinian child or an Israeli child.

Did you know that Juliano Merr-Khamis, the actor who plays the sheik, was killed about three months ago (April 4, 201)?

GS: I did not know that.

JS: I wrote something — you can look it up on The Huffington Post — he opened a theater in Jenin called the Freedom Theater. His father was Palestinian, and after his mother died she took the insurance money and opened a theater school for Palestinian kids in Jenin. He continued her work and was putting on a production of “Alice in Wonderland”, and I guess fundamentalists in the village thought it was too liberal. A guy in a mask shot him five times in front of his two-year old. He was sort of the perfect person — he was 100% Palestinian and 100% Jewish, which made people nervous. It was sort of like shooting John Lennon. So I say it’s not he gun that killed him, it’s the hate that killed him. And I’d like that to end some day — like yesterday.

I think it’s very difficult to argue with the film, because politically it’s very accurate. Someone might ask, “Why didn’t it present both sides?” The responsibility of the filmmaker is not to present both sides, it is to have a point of view. If someone disagrees with that point of view, they can criticize it. I love the structure, though — to understand Miral, you have to live through her psycho-genetic makeup. Through Fatima and Nadia… so that by the time we get to Miral, we already know who she is and how she’ll react. For me, that was an interesting storytelling device and an interesting way to tell the story and deal with time.

GS: Do you see a sort of peace coming within a reasonable number of years?

JS: I think something is going to have to happen. How can you be the only free, democratic country in the region if you’re supported by dictators like Mubarak and some of the other leaders in the region? I think the young Arab people really want democracy, and now that this “Arab spring” has occurred, I think the Israelis will have to deal with the Palestinians in a different way. There’s so much hate that is generated by the stubbornness of this situation. The situation is holding society hostage. Do I think someday it will get better? I do.

I think Netanyahu is a creep. On the other hand, there was a beautiful article written by Roger Cohen where he talks about Netanyahu going before Congress and the Palestinians going before the United Nations. But the problem is that these people should be speaking to each other, not others. We need to put some pressure on the Israelis and help them. There is something that I think is not quite Jewish about their politics and military. Acting out of fear and remembered pain, and doing whatever we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But you can’t be the victim and the aggressor at the same time. Rabin was a great man, Shimon Peres is a great man — but he has no power over there. It’s too bad, because I think he did a great job on the Oslo Agreement. In the film, I point out the agreement was that Palestine would get 22% of the land. That was in 1993 — today there is even less left.

But I think people are getting the idea that things need to change and we need to help. I’m optimistic. I don’t know why. Years ago, Sweden and Denmark were warring for hundreds of years. Now you can drive from one to the other without a passport. I hope some day that will get sorted out, but I felt it was my responsibility to make this film.

GS: And I’m glad you did. As I said, the film is a human film and not a political one. Anyone who cares about the Middle East has a side they fall down on, whether they’re on the right side or the wrong side. But you made a film that just tells the truth. Love it or hate it, it will spark conversation.

JS: Thank you for saying that. What happens sometimes is that people think they have to identify with their tribe. So right or wrong, if they feel the tribe is being attacked, they defend the tribe. It’s like you can’t see the “I”, you just see the group. And the movie shows a family, a person, her point of view. It’s not my point of view, but a point of view I thought needed to be shown. You can separate Miral from her tribe, her group. I think we need more of that.

GS: Absolutely. I’m glad to see more films like this starting to come out. A few years ago we had “Waltzing With Bashir”…

JS: Yeah. For me, as a Jewish person, to make this film… I don’t think a Palestinian person could have or would have made it. But if they did… I don’t think a lot of Jewish people notice that I’m showing a Palestinian guy raping his stepdaughter. Somebody who’s afraid to blow people up. Two girls kissing, which they wouldn’t show. But I wanted to be authentic. My mother always said to me, “Go to Israel, and you’re have this special feeling.” I don’t know if the feeling I got was the one my mother wanted me to have. She was the president of Hadassah in 1948. She was the first president of Hadassah, and she thought they would bring in a new utopia. Maybe someday they will.

GS: We can only hope. Thank you so much, Julian, for your time.

JS: No, Gavin, thank you. Hopefully someday we can properly meet.

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