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Drawing portraits on the moving screen

Issues like Palestine run very deep, but the film seems to be in a hurry and ends up glossing over, among other things, Israeli atrocities on the West Bank.

hollywood Updated: Oct 22, 2010 19:41 IST
Gautaman Bhaskaran

When a Jewish director makes a film on Palestine, there is bound to be questions. The first would be, how fair he has been to the Palestine problem. Julian Schanabel’s Miral, which played at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival before screening at Venice last September, is based on Rula Jebreal’s book on her troubled life at Jerusalem. She ultimately migrated to Italy.

“Miral, also scripted by Jebreal, examines the Middle East conflict through the eyes of a 17-year-old schoolgirl, essayed by Frieda Pinto. A seven-year-old Miral comes to a boarding school for girls orphaned by the bloody war. She has just lost her mother tragically, and her father feels that she would grow up best in the school. Till 17, Miral lives a life secluded from the troubles outside. But when she is asked to teach at a refugee camp, a shock awaits her, and she is gripped by a sense of anger, frustration and revulsion. The movie goes on to tell us how Miral overcomes her personal dilemmas, including her love for a political activist, to eventually become a journalist and author.

Issues like Palestine run very deep, but the film seems to be in a hurry and ends up glossing over, among other things, Israeli atrocities on the West Bank. In all fairness, it must be said that Schnabel steers clear of dramatising his work, and concludes on a very lovely note of the Oslo peace talks that inspire Miral to travel out of Palestine.

Gautaman Bhaskaran
Gautaman Bhaskaran
Schnabel often tackles biographies, although he prefers to call them portraits of people, like those of the Editor-in-Chief of Elle magazine, Jean Dominique Bauby (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and the Cuban poet and novelist, Reinaldo Arenas (Before Night Falls). "I only realised it the other day that these are portraits, not biographies", the director tells me at Abu Dhabi during a long conversation on Friday. "Truth is stranger than fiction. It is amazing that these things happen".

Schnabel is obviously talking about Bauby, who was totally paralysed after a stroke. He was just capable of moving one of his eyelids, although he remained mentally alert. And it is in this condition that he wrote his memoirs that Schnabel brought to the screen.

In each case, the helmer says that the character was able to communicate something to the audiences. Whether it was the poet or Miral. Cubans who “watched my work are still thinking about how it was to grow up in Fidel Castro’s regime. Bauby’s book gave hope to all those paralysed people who had problems with communication”.

“I base my films on real people, I want my work to have real implications in the world”, the director avers. Of course, some of Schnabel’s characters have never been part of his world. He has never met Bauby although “his girlfriend once told me that he was sitting behind me in a bull-fight at Neil. But I did not say hello to him. I know a lot of people who knew him. But he was not part of my world”.

Schnabel does a detailed research before he begins sketching portraits through his viewfinder. He met Bauby’s wife and children, his physiotherapist, his nurse and so on. He went to the hospital where Bauby was.

In the case of Miral, Schnabel went to Israel and Palestine to capture the mood, the sights and sounds of those places. Yes, he had Jebreal with him all the time, which meant he was able to shoot in many of the original locations, including mosques. Also, the director made sure that his Jewish crew did not cause undue discomfort in Palestine. He asked the members to speak in English, not Hebrew. Yet, when some local did not like a manager, Schnabel lost several locations. That is how it was.

Who said movie-making was just get the reels running?

(Gautaman Bhaskaran covers film festivals across continents, and is now in Abu Dhabi)