Weeks after its release in New York and Los Angeles (on March 25), and then Washington, DC (on April 1), Julian Schnabel’s controversial new film Miral finally opens locally at Lincoln Park’s Landmark Century Center Theater tomorrow (April 15).
By now Schnabel’s time on the talk show circuit (in pajamas!) is old news, and the attempt to market controversy (a Jewish star made of barbed wire on a blood red poster with the tag line: “The movie they tried to stop…”) has failed. Seeing their film saddled with a 17% score on Rotten Tomatoes (splat!), the Weinstein Company has done little to generate local interest, providing Chicago critics with nothing more than the most minimal online press kit.
So why would I throw myself into the fray at this point? For one simple reason: I was deeply moved by Miral, and my recommendation is heartfelt.
There are good Israeli characters and bad Israeli characters in Miral, just as there are good Palestinian characters and bad Palestinian characters. Every time the Israelis act against the Palestinians, it’s always provoked. When Miral’s aunt “Fatima” (Ruba Blal) is arrested, it’s because she planted a bomb in a movie theatre. When Miral’s mother “Nadia” (Yasmine Al Massri) is arrested, it’s because she assaulted a woman on a bus. (Yes, the woman said something stupid, but Nadia was clearly drunk, belligerent, and looking for trouble). At no point are the Palestinian characters in Miral presented as mere victims of Israeli aggression, and when Miral’s finance “Hani” (Omar Metwally) is killed at the end, he’s assassinated by militant Palestinians, not Israelis.
So despite everything you may have heard from others, I personally found nothing in Miral that was deliberately anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, or anti-Zionist. More than anything else, Miral is a tribute to Hind Husseini, a woman who created a home in the midst of madness for thousands of Palestinian children.
Screenwriter Rula Jebreal was born in Haifa in 1973. She was sent to Hind Husseini’s school, Dar Al-Tifl, after her mother committed suicide in 1978. In 2004, having made a career for herself as a journalist in Italy, Jebreal wrote the semi-autobiographical novel Miral, and this is the source of Schnabel’s film.
I have no idea which parts of Miral (either on the page or on the screen) are true or not true. I don’t know anything about Jebreal’s parents, and I have no insight into whether or not she invented the Israeli friend she calls “Lisa” (played in the film by Julian Schnabel’s beautiful daughter Stella Schnabel). But I do know that Hind Husseini was a real person and Dar Al-Tifl is a real place, and from all the sources available to me online, Hind Husseini seems to be a genuine Palestinian heroine whose life is well-worth celebrating by people of good will everywhere.
Hind Husseini is played in Miral by Hiam Abbass, one of the greatest film actresses of our day. Abbass was born in Nazareth in 1960. The first time I remember seeing her onscreen was in the Tunisian film Satin Rouge (2002). I was immediately entranced and I have followed her career closely ever since. In 2005, she came to present Amos Gitai’s film Free Zone at our 41st annual Chicago International Film Festival. In addition to Gitai, she has also worked with Israeli director Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride) and Palestinian directors Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now) and Cherien Dabis (Amreeka). Although Abbass had small roles in Steven Speilberg’s Munich and Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story, American audiences probably know her best from Thomas McCarthy’s beloved Indie The Visitor (in which she played “Mouna”).
In 2008, Abbass became the first Palestinian to be named “Best Actress” by the Israel Film Academy for her starring role in Riklis’ film Lemon Tree. Some people thought Lemon Tree was anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, and anti-Zionist too, but most people I know who actually saw it loved it just as much as I did. And Abbass brings precisely the same magic to Miral, playing a character once again imbued with natural dignity, superior grace, and uncompromising intelligence.
Miral’s storyline begins in December 1947. Hind Husseini is introduced to us as an extremely beautiful and well-connected young woman who has charm, wealth, and the promise of a perfect life. Soon after, however, she meets a group of children from Deir Yassin and discovers a higher purpose. (To his credit, Schnabel does nothing to exploit this historical reference. You either know the controversy surrounding Deir Yassin or you don’t, and if you don’t, you won’t learn it here.) Husseini builds an international network to create first a shelter and then a school. Over time, most of the boys are placed elsewhere, and Husseini becomes a magnet for unwanted Palestinian girls, orphaned or simply abandoned.
Like screenwriter Rula Jebreal, the character “Miral” becomes a student at Dar Al-Tifl in 1978. Her father “Jamal” (Alexander Siddig), in deep grief after his wife Nadia’s death, entrusts Miral to Husseini, and although Jamal remains a presence on weekends and holidays, Husseini quickly becomes the dominant force in Miral’s young life.
But Husseini has no control over events outside the walls of Dar Al-Tifl, and as Miral grows from a child (Yolanda El Karam) to a teenager (Freida Pinto), she becomes ever more embroiled in the First Intifada. Eventually Miral is arrested and interrogated. By this point, Israeli police have photos of her at demonstrations, standing near well-known militants, and she’s been acting as their courier. (Jebreal never characterizes Miral as an “innocent victim,” and neither does Schnabel.)
Husseini finally becomes fierce. She scolds the girl: doesn’t Miral see that she’s not only endangering her own future, but the welfare of all the girls in Dar Al-Tifl? But Miral is a teenager; do teenagers ever listen to the “excuses” of adults?
All of the actors are excellent, and even though Pinto (the ingénue from Slumdog Millionaire) isn’t Palestinian, she looks so much like Jebreal that the resemblance is almost uncanny. But Miral belongs to Hiam Abbass, and if I ruled the world, then I would personally hand her an Oscar next February.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (4/14/11)
Click HERE to read my 2005 chat with Hiam Abbass.
Top Photo: Freida Pinto as teenage Miral.
Bottom Photo: Hiam Abbass as Hind Husseini.
Photo Credits: Jose Haro/The Weinstein Company