Monday, September 27, 2010

Miral, dir. Julien Schnabel, 2010

For all of the critics'  perceived problems with Schnabel's latest film, Miral is an important film for a number of reasons. Among all the films that are made, at the checkpoints, along the road to Ramallah, in the settlements, is is unusual to find a representation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that goes back in history to 1948 and the occupation of Jerusalem. Like so much of contemporary cinema, films made in and about the region have as their reference points, conflicts of the past ten years. Again and again, they are either set in the past, or more likely, focussed on the impasse of the present. The fact that Schnabel's film is historical, that he appropriates from the archives and gives a historical context to the devastating state of affairs in Gaza makes it unusual and important. As the film travelled through generations of women and men who are held hostage to a gradually worsening situation, I remembered the scathing criticisms of Spielberg's Schindler's List. Like that film, Miral may be filled with fabrication and distortion of the facts, but also like Spielberg's blockbuster, if the film makes its impression on the world stage and it can raise audience awareness of the history of the Israeli-Palestine conflicts then that world will be a better place.
Hiam Abbass as Hind Husseini 

Miral is also unusual when it shows the whole spectrum of life for women in the occuppied territories. The film is based on a biographical novel by Rula Jebreal. We see Hind Husseini, the wealthy, liberated woman who establishes a school for orphan girls in the middle of Jerusalem in 1948. And then there is Miral's mother, Nadia, the young girl who is raped, runs away, ends up a whore and an alcoholic before finding herself in prison for the hitting a Jewish woman in the nose. And Nadia's cell mate, a nurse who sets the Jordanian soldiers free and is caught only to find herself part of a terrorist cell, placing a bomb in a movie theater, and as a result, spending three lifetimes in jail. And Miral, the young idealist who is both narrative vehicle for the film's immense sweep and the ruse through which the humanness of all the other characters is enabled. Thanks to Hind's insistence that her girls take the message of empowerment to ghettoed settlements, Miral sees the injustice and senseless violence against her people for the first time, and with her, we are given insight into the breadth of life for women and girls in the occupied territories. While Schnabel represents the multiplicity of what it is to be a woman caught in the crossfire of these wars and conflicts, he strikes a balance between showing us enough of their lives to ensure its impact and narrative consistency, but not too much that we become lost in the emotional individuality of any candidate. Even Miral herself is somewhat distant from the film's emotional center at times. There is something obvious about the spectrum of women covered by Schnabel, but what really impresses is that he manages the diversities of the cast without overburdening his narrative. Even his introduction of the Jewish girl (in the illustration of the well-worn idea that the Jewish people themselves are not always responsible for the hostilities) a girlfriend of Miral's cousin, a liberated, western and modern in her secularity, even her introduction is, for the most part handled with subtlety. 

That said, I have to agree with critics such as Geoffrey Macnab of The Independent, that the style is, for the most part, overdone. Schnabel's use of the handheld camera, rack focus and out of focus can be, at times, gratuitous, and thereby distract from the sensibility of the film's subject matter. However, I do have to admit, Miral is aesthetically gorgeous (as should be a film from an artist-turned-filmmaker) and it is so unusual to find this kind of style in a film about the Palestinian struggle, that it makes it refreshing.

Miral is far from a perfect film, and is actually filled with flaws. For example, being the admirer of Willem Dafoe that I am, I kept wondering where he went. In a scene close to the beginning he meets Hind Husseini at a Christmas party, comes back to visit her as a UN Colonel and helps her get through the barriers in Jerusalem closed to Palestinians in 1967. Despite their warm embrace and the expectation that something more is going to happen between them, he is never to return again. It is as though he was tied up with other commitments and not able to return to the set for his later scenes.

And then there is the question of the film's bias. Never does Miral concede that the blockades, the violence, the injustice are the fault of anyone but the Jews who came to take over the ancient world, giving them a land of their own, after World War II. This has been tipped to cause a fracas and potentially preclude the film's success in the United States (read: the Oscars). This may well be the case, but then again, I don't ever remember seeing a film that claimed the Palestinians were to blame for their own oppression, and the effective destruction of their lives and culture. So why attack Miral? Because of course, it has the potential for success, and therefore, to have critical impact on the deeply zionist persuasions of the United States. If for no other reason than this, the film must be supported. 

1 comment:

Virginia Pitts said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention - I look forward to seeing it. I did some work for this cause in the late 80s in two documentary pieces - one about the role of women and children in the first intifada (I've never met such strong women or such incredible children - anywhere!) broadcast on Channel 4, and another about Palestinians and Israelis working together for justice, broadcast on BBC2 and distributed quite widely in the US. We wanted to change the world. We couldn't of course. I'm very pleased that others are trying different tactics. Whatever the flaws, I'm sure I'll be a supporter of Schnabel's efforts.