Julian Schnabel says the unsayable

I’ve just watched Julian Schnabel’s ambitious epic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Miral.  It’s not a great movie, and certainly doesn’t bear comparison with Schnabel’s brilliant cinematic rendition of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but I felt that the dismissive and damning reviews that it received were unfair.  It’s true that some of the acting in Miral is rather stilted.  Schnabel tells a complicated and involved story, tracing the history of post-1948 Palestine with the Jerusalem orphanage founded by Hind al-Husseini for Palestinian street children as its centrepiece, and this structure doesn’t entirely work.

But what is remarkable about the film is its unvarnished depiction of the disastrous consequences of the creation of the state of Israel for the Palestinians.   From the first appearance of orphaned children from the Deir Yassin massacre, to the later scenes of schoolchildren being shot at and beaten by the Israeli army or Schnabel’s heroine Miral being flogged by a thuggish female Israeli interrogator,  the film depicts Israel as arrogant, brutal and oppressive.

This is not a ‘shooting and crying’ film like Waltz With Bashir, which for all its stylistic brilliance and inventiveness, still contrives to make the Israeli army appear to be victims rather than aggressors in the Lebanon invasion.   Schnabel does not make any attempt to mitigate or excuse Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and even sympathetically portrays a female Palestinian bomber who blows up a cinema audience watching Polanski’s Repulsion.

Schnabel clearly owes  much of this perspective to his Palestinian partner Rula Jebreal,  who wrote the novel on which the film is  based.  Politically the film is naive and rather hazily idealistic.   But Schnabel has nevertheless gone further than any mainstream Western,  let alone Jewish-American, director in his willingness to look at the conflict from a Palestinian perspective.

Not surprisingly his film has not gone down well in certain quarters and has been strongly criticised by among others,  the Israeli mission to the UN and the American Jewish Committee,  whose director complained of a plan to show the film at the UN building in New York on the – entirely correct – grounds that  ’The film has a clear political message, which portrays Israel in a highly negative light.’

Schnabel has insisted that his film is intended to initiate dialogue, declaring

“I love the state of Israel.  I believe in it and my film is about preserving it, not hurting it. Understanding is part of the Jewish way and Jewish people are supposed to be good listeners. But, if we don’t listen to the other side, we can never have peace.”

The problem, as Schnabel has found out, is that too many of Israel’s supporters, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, have no interest in a conversation of this kind. For these supporters, the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the history of the ‘villa in the jungle’ ,  valiantly fighting for freedom, democracy and other ‘Western’ values against the Arab hordes and their terrorist cohorts.

Schnabel did not get this, or else he chose to ignore it, and his brave but flawed epic deserves credit for at least trying to break this deadening consensus.