Two critics walk into a virtual bar and talk about “Miral” (2011)

6 May 2011

JustMeMike: Today readers we are proud to present a conversation about the new Julian Schnabel film Miral. Both of us live in the USA — one in college town in a southwestern state, and the other in a coastal town in southwest Florida. Schnabel  filmed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, not all that far from the West Bank. So this discussion will have a distinctly western flavor to it. That’s in the geographical sense only — in case you were wondering. Political inclinations hopefully won’t enter into this talk about the film.

While the actual location of the meeting shall remain a closely held secret, what was said will have no such protections. Without further preamble, I’ll ask our friend Didion to introduce herself and tell us a bit about Miral’s director Julian Schnabel.

Didion: I’m a college professor and film fan, and on my blog I usually discuss issues related to feminism, cinema, and pop culture — so Miral seemed a perfect film for conversation, for it tells the tale that focuses on three generations of Palestinian women.

Freida Pinto as Miral

Putting women at the center of a film is a shift for Schnabel, whose (brilliant) earlier films drew on artistic men’s biographies and autobiographies to create extraordinary films: Basquiat (the story of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat), Before Night Falls (the autobiography of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas), and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (based on the memoir of fashion magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, written during the time he suffered from locked-in syndrome after a massive stroke).

An initial response: I admit, I’d read just enough of a couple of mixed reviews about Miral to go in with low expectations (there was a grand total of 5 people in the theater). Sometimes that stance can allow me to appreciate a film all the more because I don’t expect it to be a masterpiece. But I walked out of this one annoyed. Its politics were naive, the story was split awkwardly between four different women’s lives and political inclinations, and I never felt for any of them the way I did with Schnabel’s previous protagoinists. Was it just me, or was Miral a bit of a dog’s breakfast, as the English say?

Hiam Abbass as the schoolteacher, Hind

JustMeMike: WowI’d not heard that one before — a dog’s breakfast — nor have I consumed a dog’s breakfast. I’m a transplanted New Yorker living near the golden shores of the Gulf of Mexico. My blog (The Arts) discusses film, art, travel, and I even dabble in foreign television.

My experiences with Schnabel, prior to Miral, consist of knowing that he was director of Basquiat, an artist  whose name was often overheard in bars and restaurants on West Broadway in lower Manhattan years back. But I never saw the film, so Schnabel was an unknown for me.

I too had low expectations for Miral from reading a few reviews. I knew of Freida Pinto from Slumdog Millionaire, and I knew of Alexander Siddig from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the TV series, who portrayed Miral’s father in this film. As I exited the theater with the sole other person who caught the matinee, she asked me if I liked it. I answered that yes, I did like it, but that it disappointed me, and that it was flawed. My first disappointment came from the fact that Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoewere each named on the film’s poster, but combined for no more than five minutes or so in the film. Do you think that was a bit of gimmick to create interest for American viewers?

Redgrave, Abbass, and Dafoe in an early scene

Didion: That’s a great point: as much as I love to look at Vanessa Redgrave, she was a distraction for me here — as was the weird appearance of Dafoe as a sort of love interest who was never developed. Surely Schnabel can’t believe that the kinds of viewers who want to see a film about the Palestinian struggle don’t require Dafoe and Redgrave as catnip to show up? It would have been nice, instead, to have more than two actual Palestinian actors in prominent roles in the film (Yasmine Al Massri, who plays the troubled Nadia, is Palestinian-French; the wonderful Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass plays Hind Husseini). All the other leads are not Palestinian.

But my larger problem was with the way the film ricocheted between four women’s different relationships to political activism in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the course of nearly 50 years. At times I thought it simply wanted to show how that conflict affected different women — which would’ve been a strikingly agnostic way of looking at the conflict. At other times, especially toward the end, the film seemed to grasp for simplistic solutions, à la “let’s hope for peace.” We didn’t even get to Miral (Pinto) until the last 45 minutes or so of the film, and she seems to be so easily influenced by the people around her (father, boyfriend, teacher, cousin’s girlfriend) that she has no clear identity or agency of her own.

Yasmine Al Massri as the tragic Nadia

JustMeMike: Of course your view concerning the structure of the film is correct. He, or rather she, the novel and screenplay were written by Rula Jebreal, who is Schabel’s significant other, probably wrote the story of Hind Husseini, the founder of the school in the novel. But likely there wasn’t enough color in that story alone. So Nadia is introduced. Once Nadia is incarcerated she meets Fatima in the jail and we then learn of her story. Then little Miral appears. Certainly it is difficult to build a generational story spanning 50 years, and then compress it in to two hours. I wouldn’t say the story ricocheted, which implies a lack of control. I thought it was more linear than that. But the result is the same. None of the four females’ stories seemed to have any depth, which makes them unsatisfying.I’d like to add that the marketing of the film led me to have a different expectation. Especially from the trailer. I went in expecting Miral to become a terrorist. Was that what you expected?

Yasmine Al Massri and Alexander Siddig as the newly-married Nadia and Jamal

Didion: Absolutely re: the trailer. In fact, it was the contrast of Pinto’s beautiful face and abject posture (sitting glumly on a bench in her school uniform, as if in a police station) that intrigued me so much initially. After all, one of the questions that has dominated in the media has been, why do women make up such a striking percentage of Middle Eastern activists and Islamic terrorists? It seems to fly in the face of gender stereotypes about women being “naturally” pacifistic or unaggressive (does anyone really believe this stuff about “natural” gender differences, or does it just make for simplistic reportage?). Even if we throw those stereotypes out the window, it remains interesting to think about why women in a place like Palestine make such a wide range of different political choices. But by dividing its narrative into four different women, the film doesn’t sufficiently explain the motives and ideals of any of them; if anything, Abbass’s politically neutral schoolteacher is the most fully-realized and sympathetic of all the characters. JustMeMike: Ah … at least in the film, Nadia, who is the second woman of import whom we meet, is at least attractive. Her life is hard, if we take what happened to her in her home which forced her to flee, and led her to become a dancer, her choice are more clear-cut than not. Fatima, on the other hand is a nurse who spent her time in an ill-equipped clinic caring for the wounded without sufficient equipment or medicine. Her anger is there for us to see, even if it is not quite fully realized. Schnabel and Rula Jebreal are asking s to make that leap along with Fatima.

Schnabel went clearly for controversy because he, a Jewish man himself, made a film that isn’t quite pro-Palestinian, and not quite anti-Israeli, but the film does lean or tilt in both of those directions. Then he ups the ante by having the trailer make us think that the film will take Miral to the dark side — terrorism. Plus we aren’t getting any deep motivational signals from Miral. As you said early, she goes in the direction of whoever she is closest too. Which leaves us with Schnabel not really taking sides which leaves the film awash and floating  from one side to the other.

I’m wondering if you agree with my thought of his intent to be controversial but in a soft way?

Miral and her aging schoolteacher (Abbass)

Didion: Many American Jews feel conflicted about Israel, especially with regard to the Palestinian question, but it does remain pretty controversial; I can see that he would have wanted to tread softly on a subject that could earn him the charge of being antisemitic. But if it’s true he was trying to thread the needle between controversy and making a political statement, I still believe he’s mainly achieved a muddle.

But rather than be an unmitigated hater, I’ve got to mention how much I loved a few of those vintage Schnabel moments: the beautiful, dreamlike shots of Nadia belly dancing in a bar; the way the camera captured her drunkenness by blurring out the edges of the screen as she stumbled home at the end of the night; the scene on the bus when a man hits on her and his wife/girlfriend calls her a whore. These are purely experiential moments that reminded me of some of the best footage from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an amazing film.

JustMeMike: Well, since I have not seen either of those films just mentioned, I’ll have to pass on agreeing about what you’ve remembered. But I’ll tell you what I thought of some of the images and content in Miral. First off, his camera was way too jittery in the first 8th of the film. It just wasn’t needed. Then during Nadia’s rape — before we knew what we were looking at, Schnabel decided to focus up close on one of the posts in the bed’s headboard which was vibrating to such a degree that you couldn’t tell what it was. I thought that was also unnecessary.

Miral learns to like her cousin’s Jewish girlfriend, Lisa

But I loved when Miral and Lisa were driving back to Jerusalem and they got stopped at the check point. First of all, it was scary even though Lisa was an Israeli and Jewish, while Miral was also an Israeli but Palestinian. Schnabel had by then instilled some fear in me for the characters. So that was well done. In the same setting, you noticed that barrenness of the area – stony hillsides, almost devoid of trees. It was but a brief moment, but it struck me with its starkness. I also liked the street and walls of the Old Jerusalem. It was marvelous to see thousands of years of life in the form of narrow streets and stone walls staring at us.

But I also felt that there were too many strokes to the beating in jail. It was agonizing to watch especially after they had pointedly shown no more than a brief flash of it in the trailer. So I was kind of shocked. And then further shocked when the Judge freed Miral, even though we had been carefully prepped that without evidence, the cops had no case against Miral.

What else did you find interesting or attractive?

Miral and her boyfriend, Hani

Didion: You’re so right about the shaky camera; in fact, the image pixillated when it panned too rapidly around a scene. Was he trying to convey disorientation?

On the scene of Nadia’s rape, with the sound blurred out and the strange view of the slats in the headboard: I actually found that a nice solution to depicting more graphically the pain and humiliation. NOT that I ever want to see rape depicted onscreen, a topic I’ve ranted about in the past.

Now that you bring up those scenes, I want to turn the topic to the subject of women a bit more. The film seems to me to be preoccupied with different forms of female suffering — whether it’s Nadia’s rape, her harrassment in the bus, her propensity for drunkenness, Miral’s beating in jail, the aging Hind sitting in her room coming face to face with the implications of her apolitical stance. Am I exaggerating, or does this film tread so softly onto potentially controversial subjects in part by watching women suffer?

JustMeMike: Sorry — I don’t think that you can play that card and be correct about it. If you applaud because the four central characters are female, and the film is set in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the film is written as a drama, then suffering is not unexpected. Yes, the degree of suffering could be called unbalanced and even unfair to a degree, but who in the film was happy?

Certainly not the heroic Hind, played marvelously by Abbassshe died alone in her dorm room. She was likely satisfied with her life as a humanitarian and a teacher, but that is not the same as personal happiness. Miral was happy as a child but definitely not as a 17 year old. Nadia and Fatima? Okay, Nadia’s life was overboard in terms of what she went through — but this could have been to get her into jail in order to introduce Fatima, who was given a harsh sentence, which was used to establish a bias against the courts and laws.

Hind rescues a small army of Palestinian orphans during the 6-Day War

As for the men: Hani, the Palestinian lover of Miral was killed. I did like the way that scene was done because of how we were distanced from it. Jamal, Miral’s father, at least in the sense that he raised her, but he handed her off to Hind — for a better chance at a future — but this must have been a difficult decision for him. Then he was abused by Miral herself when she said that Jamal had spent his whole life hiding in the mosque. It wasn’t a true statement of course, as he had done his share by bringing other children to Hind’s school, but it must have hurt him deeply. I don’t think his character spoke any other lines after that scene.

So yes, I think you are exaggerating.

Didion: That’s not quite what I meant. To clarify, I’m not sure I’m applauding this film at all, despite the fact that it has women characters at its center; there are plenty of films with female protagonists that disappoint on many levels.

My question is, what does electing to have four female protagonists allow Schnabel to do? And I think the answer is that he ultimately upholds a fairly conventional notion about female agency: the Jewish-Palestinian conflict in total hurts Palestinian women — it makes them choose between political activism/guerrilla fighting and being politically impotent, puts them in the way of being raped by men and/or beaten by the police, and throws them into prison for the slightest of offenses. Schnabel wants his viewers to pour forth emotion on behalf of these suffering women — and this is a level of emotion they might not express for male protagonists because we’re not used to sympathizing with Middle Eastern men. I think the film creates melodrama because we’re used to seeing women as victims, that’s a shame. The most activist of the women, Fatima, is given very short shrift by the film. Most of the women get batted around by fate or the men in their lives, or ultimately regret their attenuated relationship to political activism.

It’s true that we sympathize with Jamal (and the Sudanese-English Alexander Siddig is excellent, as he was in Syriana and Cairo Time), but we also view him as a man made impotent by his wife’s infidelity, his failure to engage in political efforts, his feminizing kindness to his daughter.

Miral with her aging father, Jamal

JustMeMike: Thanks for the clarification. I was not hearing (understanding) you accurately and I believe that at times we are discussing the film on separate levels — which means that Schnabel has indeed created a controversial film. There’s the perspective of a film fan, the perspective of international political pundits and authorities and regular folks watching from the sidelines while tuned into CNN and reading their newspapers, and there’s the perspective of those who spend time considering the social and humanistic aspects of their own lives, the films they see, and whichever parts of the world they are in contact with.

Fatima is indeed given short shrift by Schnabel and Jebreal, and I believe that is because the film must be fit into a finite amount of time, and because she is the least sympathetic character. This in itself is not a flaw. Hind Husseini who popped into the film every 10 years or so, was basically relegated to the sidelines and her perspective was as you have already said to keep her school safe and secure and separate from the politics. I agree with you that we should have seen more of her. Nadia was the every-woman character who represented the terrible lot in life of Palestinian women which may have nothing at all to do with what Schnabel and Jebreal want us to think or may have everything to do with what the filmmakers intended for us.

Miral learns her friend won’t have to marry involuntarily

Miral represents the future yet to be determined. She is avid but at the same time not a deep thinker. I thought that Pinto was able to convey her territorial prerogatives as a young Palestinian woman but I wonder if she was hired  for her looks and to help sell tickets. If that is so, then the film’s principals were looking at the business side of things. Which is another reason to be angry. Sorry for coming to that so late — but you already touched on it when you mentioned the shortage of Palestinian actresses in speaking roles.

Didion:  I want to say one more thing about the film’s politics: I felt that Schnabel was surprisingly vague about solutions. He advocates peace at the end of the film, but offers no particular means of doing so beyond asking the Israelis to honor the Oslo Accords of 1993 (signed to conclude the Intifada of 1987-93) — which were pretty damn controversial amongst Palestinians. Now, I don’t really have a dog in that fight (although in full disclosure I will admit to having more sympathy for the underdog Palestinians) but no one can be so naive as to believe that Declaration of Principles would resolve all the problems. I’m not sure whether to go so far as to accuse Schnabel of copping out or to believe that he needs stronger, clearer material to work with before he enters into it fully (he handled Cuban and AIDS politics nicely in Before Night Falls, perhaps with the aid of Arenas’ terrific autobiography).

JustMeMike: I’m going to mostly pass on your last comment, neither agreeing or disagreeing, because mainly I don’t know the history beyond the surface. But I will say that the Oslo Accords of 1993 and Hind Husseini’s death in 1994 are all historical facts. As is the fact the Rula Jebreal herself was a student at Husseini’s Dar El-Tifel school starting at the age of 6 and for the next 13 years. So she was protected as a student from much of the Palestinian hardship outside the walls of the school. She was also inside the story. On the other hand, Schnabel wasn’t anywhere near the story. He comes to the story years later with the built in advantage, or maybe it is a disadvantage, of historical hindsight. As do we.

Director Julian Schnabel

Maybe it is fair to say he did a cop out, and maybe it isn’t fair to take that position. Just as it isn’t all the fault of the material either. The story told in the film ends nearly 16 years ago. So we have stronger and clearer facts to work with which aren’t part of the story. But having said that, I still believe, like you, that the story told in the film was indeed trying to be somewhat persuasive but did not succeed in that regard.

Didion: I’m hardly an expert, either, but even the film shows that Miral’s boyfriend Hani is killed by other Palestinians when he supports the Oslo Accords. With a conflict this old and complex, there are no easy solutions.

So I’m wondering, JMM, as you look back: what works in this film, and what doesn’t? Beyond the question of whether you’d recommend it to your friends (and readers), what do you think matters about this film?

I’m thinking that my answer might be that it brings attention to the Palestinians’ experience of this long conflict, and this is enhanced by Schnabel’s decision to have such an interesting range of women at the center. So even though I’m skeptical of its treatment of women and its simplistic plea for peace, and doubtful about the film’s ultimate coherence, I hope very much it brings attention to the complexity of the situation and the serious imbalance of power between the two groups.

And one more exasperated note: the more I think about it, the more I’m annoyed that the film tries to construct a stalled mini-romance between Hind Husseini and Willem Dafoe’s Eddie!

JustMeMike: No easy solutions for peace — absolutely. What works? The plight of children in a conflict is a story as old as conflict itself. But instead of focusing throughout the film on the newly orphaned, the school is pushed off to the side, and this was a good choice.  Yes, I am in agreement with you that this story told, from the perspective of the Palestinians, does bring a fresh look at this long conflict, and does humanize the Palestinians. This too is a good thing.

What doesn’t work? As you have already stated — Schnabel/Jebreal have not given the female leads in the film a more rounded or fuller personas. It is as if they’ve each been shoehorned in to a narrow arc. Hind is the heroine and Mother figure — but we don’t learn much about her other than her fierceness in protecting and caring for the children. Miral is at the center but we don’t get to see her mind at work. Fatima is the terrorist, and Nadia is the victim.

I thought the film was rich visually as well. As for the stalled mini romance — agreed it wasn’t necessary — but it might have been far worse had they chosen to expand the romance and give it some legs.

Didion: You’re so right. But it’s so depressing when a critic is reduced to saying, “It could have been worse.”

In the end, I think this film is disappointing — beautiful and even eloquent at time, but ultimately I come back to my initial claim: it’s a dog’s breakfast. As much as I’m sorry to say it (I’m a big fan of Schnabel), it won’t keep me from seeing his films in the future.

JMM, this has been a pleasure! I’m looking forward to our next virtual barroom conversation. Let’s hope next time we find a film that we can be ecstatic about. (She raises her pint for a toast.)

JustMeMike: There you go. Disappointing is the mutually agreed on single word description. You mentioned Cairo Time in your comments. Timing is everything as that film arrives today from Netflix. So I am going from one Middle East hot spot to another, cinematically, of course.

Sure, we can do this again. It was fun, and I agree that we need a film that we can gush about, in fact I’ll drink to that. (He simultaneously clinks glasses, sweeps the accumulated peanut shells off the table and then signals the waitress for another round.)

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8 Responses to “Two critics walk into a virtual bar and talk about “Miral” (2011)”

  1. servetus Says:

    Applause. Substantial, interesting, and informative. No chance I’ll go see it, but I like this format a great deal. When’s the podcast coming?

    • Didion Says:

      Oooh! I don’t know of any respectable film podcasts featuring female commentators, so I’m all for it. But one of the many dude-oriented shows — The Film Talk with Gareth Higgins and Jett Loe — has just folded (as of last word) due to a lack of funds to pay the cost of editing, servers, etc. Given my salary, I’m not sure I’m prepared to do more than offer free web content on the blog!

      But perhaps a few more of these back-and-forth posts are in order.

  2. JustMeMike Says:

    Thanks Servetus, this one reads better than it might play. And I don’t want to tell you how much easier it is to edit a text than a video. As Didion says – this is free web content.

    Glad you took the time to read it.

    jmm

    • servetus Says:

      I’ve been playing around with GarageBand a little lately. It’s been really instructive. I think you could do it if you limited yourself to audio. What I’ve learned thought is that what I think of as polished extemporaneous prose really sounds terrible 🙂


  3. […] July 2011 Following our earlier chats this spring about White Material and Miral, the critic/blogger JustMeMike and I decided to choose more mainstream material this time: the […]

    • Ana Claudia Says:

      I’m responding to this comment and not the others because I was born on July 7 . But, for real, my comment is about one question you raised in the discussion: peace, is there a solution? As you’ve said, there’s not an easy one. But, have you seen Amos Gitai Free Zone, with one Israeli, one American and one Palestinian women as main characters? The answer is there: leave them be and they will find a way out of the conflict. If US didn’t support Israel, things would be much easier. Or, say, support them if they’re under attack, but let them be and find their own ways to deal with their most intimate neighbours. Israel MUST exist. But israelis also need to acknowledge the Palestinians, within and outside it’s borders. Really, it’s as simple as that…

      • Didion Says:

        It’s hard to believe that this nightmare has been going on for nearly 50 years, ever since the ’67 War. I’m loath to say there’s a simple solution, or even that there are clear borders (after all, the Israeli government and many Israeli citizens do not agree, much less the Palestinians). But It’s shocking to realize that the Israelis are more willing to live with uncertainty on that issue rather than clarify it. War is a force that gives us meaning, Chris Hedges says, to our doom.


  4. […] last spring, we’ve discussed a number of films in depth beginning with White Material, Miral, Larry Crowne, David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Whistleblower, and The Hunger […]


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