For Julian Schnabel, the storm that followed the release of his new film, “Miral,” about a Palestinian woman who joins the first intifada, has not quite passed.
A week before the film debuted in late March, prominent Jewish groups criticized Schnabel, whose film was screened at the United Nations main hall. The American Jewish Committee, for instance, said that the film has “a clear political message, which portrays Israel in a highly negative light.”
But other Jewish organizations, like Jewish Voices for Peace and the J Street, defended Schnabel, who is Jewish. (A screening and discussion scheduled for the 92nd Street was canceled; scheduling problems was the reason given.) The Academy Award-nominated director, and an accomplished painter, has been arguing in his own defense ever since.
Last Friday, Schnabel spoke with The Jewish Week from Los Angeles, a day before he was set to return to New York, where he was born and now lives. What follows is a shortened and edited version of that interview.
Q. The film is based on an autobiographical novel written by Rula Jebreal, a 37-year-old Palestinian who grew up in East Jerusalem, who’s now your girlfriend. Did you ever debate her politic views while making the film?
A. I had the Jewish perspective and she had the Palestinian perspective. So yes. I remember asking her, “What did the Arabs do to the Jews in order for [Israelis] to invade Deir Yassin [an Arab village where more than 100 Arabs were killed by Jewish military groups during Israel’s war of independence in 1948]?”
There’s no reason for violence, I know, but I asked her.
She told me to read Benny Morris’ book “1948” [a history of the war by an Israeli historian]. He describes the whole process of depopulation there. Unfortunately, the whole history is one of attacks and counter-attacks. What we need today, though, is for diplomacy and politics to speak, to solve the problems, instead of the violence.
Q. What other kind of research did you do for the film, other than read Jebreal’s book and Morris’?
A. I visited Israel a few times, for one. I visited once to find places to shoot: Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ramallah, Ramla. Then I stayed for six months, from January to June, in 2009, actually filming. Of course, there’s a lot of information that I gathered that was not in the film. People in refugee camps and Israeli soldiers I talked to.
Q. You used many local residents to make the film. Were there any cases when Israelis and Arabs were working together on the set and things got tense?
A. Well, in Ramallah I had to work with an entirely French crew — not because of the Palestinians, but because the Israelis wouldn’t let Jews work there. I also shot in Al Aqsa Mosque.
Some of the Arabs I worked with there let the Israeli crew into their homes. … And keep in mind, I started shooting just three days after the Gaza war ended [in January 2009]. Things were tense then, so I asked everyone to speak in English so as not to exacerbate any tensions.
There were extraordinary instances of cooperation. It was very encouraging, it was showing that Arabs and Israelis can live together and work together. The problem is that the middle is often held hostage by extremists on both sides.
Q. It can also be argued that Israelis and Arabs have two fundamentally different views of their history, neither of which is entirely right or wrong. It’s just two different ways at looking at the same history.
A. I don’t agree. We’ve lived with this idea of two competing narratives for a very long time and it’s not working. We’ve lived, as Jewish people, for a long time with a narrative [about the establishment of the Jewish state] that’s supported by the Israeli government and the Israeli lobby, and we need something different.
Have you been to Israel recently? Did you go to Hebron [a Biblical city with a predominantly Arab population today]? Maybe you, as a Jewish person, should go to Hebron and see how Jewish settlers terrorize the Palestinians. We’re paying with our tax dollars to do that. Israeli tax dollars pay the IDF to protect the settlers.
[Israeli conservatives] will counter that they’re paying the IDF and holding onto the territories to protect against Hamas. Well, maybe if [the Palestinians] weren’t locked up in a cage, they wouldn’t be supporting Hamas.
The one thing we cannot do is compare the lives of Israelis living on one side of this wall [the separation barrier] with the people living on the other side, who are robbed of their dignity. We cannot accept this; as Jews we cannot accept this. …The soldiers themselves are going to have to live with what they’re doing there for the rest of their lives.
Q. Some argue that the popularity of Hamas proves that many Palestinians do no want to live side by side with a Jewish state. Do you think Palestinians will accept living next to a Jewish state?
A. As soon as the Israelis are willing to show the Palestinians some respect and be benevolent, I think that will disarm the Palestinians.
Many of the Palestinians are young, and I think the democratic revolts happening around the Arab world will have an effect on the Palestinians, too. … When the first intifada started in 1987, it started out as a peaceful demonstration. If those protests were supported in the same way that we’re supporting the Egyptian and Tunisian rebellions today, it might have been different.
Q. You argue, and show in the film, that there are Palestinians who want a state for themselves, but also reject violence. Is that a point you tried to stress in the film?
A. Yes, and I’m happy the film shows Miral’s father. He’s non-violent, he’s peaceful, he’s a saint. There are people like him today who don’t want their children to be violent.
Q. At the end of the film, you explicitly call for a two-state solution. Despite all the controversy surrounding the film, is that the main political position you take?
A. Well, the problem with one state is that then you’re going to have more Muslims than Jews [and it won’t be a Jewish democracy anymore]. … But we can’t just have a Jewish state and it be a democracy. It has to be a state with Jews that extends democratic rights to all its citizens: Christians, Muslims and Jews.
The Jewish way should not be a Jewish state, but a state with Jews where everyone has equal rights. It’s what democracy is.
Q. How do you respond to the criticism that your film lacks “balance?”
A. It’s not the responsibility of a fiction film to be balanced. When Martin Scorsese makes a film about Italian gangsters, no one expects him to make one about black gangsters and Jewish gangsters too. … We need to solve this problem [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]; it’s why I made this film.
Q. Were you at all surprised by the Jewish critics your film has had?
A. Well, I’m proud of all the Jewish support the film’s had too: J Street, the Jewish Journal, Jewish Voices for Peace. I held many private screenings for Jews before the film was released, though, and heard plenty of criticism. I had a private screening for Elie Wiesel and talked to him later over the phone. He said, “You know, I wish this was a story you weren’t telling.” And I said to him, “I wish this was a story I didn’t have to tell.”
Q. You recently told The New York Times that your mother was president of Hadassah in Brooklyn, in 1948, and was a staunch Zionist. Were your family members bothered by it?
A. No, not at all, I have many close friends and family who were extremely proud that I made this film. My sister was recently the president of a Hadassah branch in Connecticut also, and she was very supportive.
Q. Were you surprised that other Jewish groups stuck their neck out in support of you?
A. I don’t think it’s a matter of sticking their neck out. I mean, what are we, scared? Was Yitzchak Rabin sticking his neck out when he tried to make peace? Was he anti-Israeli because he was trying to stop settlements?