Perhaps you’re thinking, “where the hell is Part II of the La Jefita awards? What kind of an anonymous blogger gets me all excited about seeing a list of top films by and about women, then doesn’t tell me which one wins for Most Feminist Film?” Well, you’re not the only one who wants to rant.

I wanted to consider several 2011 films for these awards, most notably Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (Tilda Swinton, I love you) and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus (so I can see Vanessa Redgrave kick the shit out of the mother stereotype), but the fact is, I can’t see them. I waited and waited, and checked showtimes everywhere within approximately 120 miles. Even if I drove all the way to Boston I couldn’t see them, because they’re not playing there, either. I don’t know what kind of moron is running those distribution companies, but if you can’t get your award-worthy film into a major American city like Boston by mid-February, you’re fucking useless.

Ahh, that feels better.

Now that I’ve ranted, and now that I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’ll have to put these films into my 2012 category (argh!), I’m prepared to re-jigger my finalists and finish this post — once I get the chance to see whether Gina Carano’s ass-kicking in Haywire is superior to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s or Hanna‘s. So, friends, you can be sure to catch this post by the weekend.

Critic/blogger JustMeMike (The Arts) and I sat down to chat about this film as we have about earlier films, most recently Larry Crowne (2011) and Miral (2011).

Didion: Hollywood has some oddities, and the biopic/advocacy picture is one of them: those films based on true-life accounts of ordinary individuals who encounter, and decide to address, some kind of horror. Think of Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), in which the titular character comes to realize that a Pacific Gas & Electric station had knowingly poisoned the water near one of its stations in a lonely community out in the southeast California desert. Or Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004), in which a generally nonpolitical hotelier seeks to save his fellow citizens from the exploding Hutu/Tutsi civil war, a genocide ignored by most of the world.

The biopic/advocacy picture is often the kind of film that doesn’t forge a lot of new ground cinematically or narratively, yet still seems nicely positioned for awards and prizes because of its role in educating the public about serious matters and offering us a real-life hero.

Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower (2010) faces these same challenges and opportunities. Set in the aftermath of the mid-90s Bosnian War, where the American ex-police Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) has gone to work temporarily with the UN peacekeeping mission, the film traces her gradual transformation from a contract employee to a serious adversary on the subject of violence against women and sex trafficking. Like so many heroes of biopic/advocacy films, Bolkovac is no freedom fighter — she’s taken the (highly lucrative) job because it allows her to earn the money that will allow her to move to Texas, where her ex-husband has moved with their daughter. Yet when she comes across a savagely beaten wife being dismissed by a group of Serbian police working alongside the UN peacekeepers, she becomes infuriated and fights to get the husband convicted. Even still, she sees this as simple good police work, not a crusading mission…until she begins to realize the extent of rampant sex trafficking and sex slavery in the region, likewise being ignored by local authorities, the UN, and a Halliburton-like company (called Democra in the film). Warning: Spoilers ahoy in this conversation!

First-time director Kondracki has written, “When you put together the words Bosnia, peacekeepers and sex-trafficking, people assume it’s going to be either ‘educational’ or ‘important’, in other words: medicinal.” Has she succeeded in moving beyond a “medicinal” film?

Feminema’s new favorite cocktail, required drinking for disturbing films about violence against women

I don’t know about you, JMM, but talking about this film requires something more substantial than a beer. I’m drinking my new favorite, a Sidecar (cognac, triple sec, lemon juice), reportedly the only Prohibition-era cocktail that’s still drinkable. And it has the added benefit of the lemon juice, which both evokes summertime and helps me avoid scurvy.

JustMeMike: Can you buy the Sidecar drink pre-mixed, you know, like in the supermarket for a stay-at-home treat? Anyway after seeing the matinee today, I feel like I need to drink a Boxcar — that’s a four pack of Sidecars. The Burns Court Cinema had what could be called a sparse crowd today for their opening screening of this film which was at 2:15 PM — maybe a dozen and half people. When the film ended, the “crowd”, that’s stretching the truth, was silent as we filed out. It felt like we had all been beaten up. I know what I was thinking — am I a member of the same gender as those sex traffickers? So I am setting the table to say that the film was a lot to take in, and it made me angry.

Didion: Yeah, the only downside of the Sidecar is that the lemon juice thins out the alcohol required to recover from the unmitigated horrors of sexual violence depicted here.

I have mixed feelings: on the one hand, I think it’s good that people might leave the theater angry about what they’ve seen. It’s particularly frustrating here, as the UN and the Halliburton-like Democra seem jointly concerned that the scandal not affect their reputations. On the other hand, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do with that anger. Does the movie tell us?

JustMeMike: Well my anger actually bounces back and forth from grand to a much a smaller scale. So I’ll table your comment about the private contractors for the moment. I’m upset that Kondracki has painted such a bleak picture about the sex-trafficking and then hasn’t built a very good film around it. Seems to me that Bolkovac should have been in greater danger as a direct threat to the status quo. But a few muttered threats on the phone aren’t exactly scary. That was all we got. I never felt that Bolkovac was in peril. The direct result of that is that our anxiety for her is lowered.

Didion: So long as we’re staying on the big-picture level, I’ll confess that there were elements I just didn’t believe — which is too bad given that Kondracki has spoken about the extensive research she did on the subject and Bolkovac’s tale in particular. Here’s what I had trouble with: I totally believed that sex trafficking might be so pervasive, and I believed it might be rife with violence toward women. But I had a harder time believing that once Bolkovac started to uncover the complicity of UN officials and Democra employees, those individuals didn’t back off and close down their activities in Sarajevo.

The film tells us that above all, these men are brutal, evil misogynists so utterly depraved that they’re willing to risk their whole enterprise — they’re so eager to keep savaging their sex slaves that they put their lucrative operation in danger, even going so far as to recruit a major UN official to risk his career facing off with Bolkovac. I feel as if I ought to be her ideal viewer (that is, I fully believe such misogyny exists), but instead she lost me with such exaggerated bad guys.JustMeMike: Good point. Seems a bit off, doesn’t it? The whistleblower is doing her thing, tooting her whistle, and they say, never mind, ignore this person — business as usual.

While we are making hay with the negatives, I have another. So Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave just continues to impress me) introduces Bolkovac to Peter Ward (David Straithairn). Rees tell her (and us) that Peter Ward is a good guy — you can trust him. Then Kondracki gives us a big plot twist. Don’t know about you, but I saw that one coming as well as the second twist. Seemed like she might have done better by bringing us in beforehand during the plotting. Anyway, I wasn’t fooled.

Didion: This returns to your earlier point: the film uses some of the oldest tricks in the thriller book, yet leaves gaps in logic — why didn’t we ever feel that Bolkovac was in danger for her life from these guys?

I’ve been thinking back to Hotel Rwanda and how educational it was for me — it made me realize that even if ethnic violence is so complex that outsiders cannot perceive good guys and bad guys, international intervention is necessary to stop massive genocide. As hard as that film was to watch, its message was crystal clear. The Whistleblower certainly raised my feminist hackles and showed me that the UN was so concerned with reestablishing a certain level of normalcy that it purposefully looks away from the issue of violence against women. That’s quite believable, and quite disturbing. But what more are we supposed to learn from this film?

JustMeMike: So who says The Whistleblower is meant to educate — if you mean call attention to the issue of sex-trafficking or violence against women, then certainly, but if you mean the UN looking the other way — then I’m not so sure. Of course it’s disturbing — but even the UN is administered by officials who are in charge of the local situations. So even if the local officials in Bosnia were either playing ostrich or were part of the profit taking — can we safely say that the entity known as the UN is directly responsible? That the blame goes all the way to the top?

Probably not.

Yet I can’t help but agree, that the issue of violence against women is quite disturbing. I wonder if Kondracki’s point is to alert and educate about the continuing violence against women, or to put the UN and private corps on notice that the whole world is watching and will watch even closer, or both?

Didion: Of course this film is meant to educate us! Why have a true-life tale unless audiences can walk away with some kind of lesson?

But you know what’s tragic? I’m never going to watch The Whistleblower again, nor will I watch Hotel Rwanda again — they’re just so gruesome. I guess I’m saying that I did find this film “medicinal,” to use Kondracki’s terms, and that I find these biopic/advocacy films medicinal almost all of the time, which makes me loath to see them. So here’s a question: when these films are, say, less than stellar, does that actually have a negative effect: it makes viewers never want to see these films (and therefore keep their heads in the sand about Important Issues)?

JustMeMike: Whoa! Slow down a bit. I think you’re leaping into an abyss here. It is only a less than stellar film, not truly a film to abhor, and more likely while the film lacks that excellence that we want so much, it shouldn’t cause a pell-mell journey in an opposite direction…

Didion: But remember walking out of the theater with all those viewers stunned into silence? Ugh, who wants to experience that again?

JustMeMike: Guilty as charged your honor, but I meant that as in bruised and battered. If the film was a true dud, or worse, than the crowd would have been in a muttering and grumbling mode. I mean no one was demanding a refund, or saying that the Director’s Guild should rethink Kondracki.

Didion: All right, all right, I promise I’m not saying this is a bad film. It’s actually very effective, as I think both of us have attested, in getting viewers angry. But it’s SO bruising. Really, would you want to see this film again? That’s why I say “medicinal.”

This actually gets back to one of my favorite rants: that filmmakers should never show rape onscreen — and now I want to expand that rant to include violence against women. It’s so horrifying, such that I think film ultimately just stuns the viewer and makes you not know quite what to do with all that horror — when in fact these are horrors that happen to real women and children all the time.

JustMeMike: Wow — I think we could go for hours just on this last statement of yours. While I am agreeing that the rape scene was horrific, I think that the intent was exactly as you described it — to stun and horrify. All for the purpose of making sure we knew exactly how desperate and dire these women’s situations were. But yes, sadly, it went on far too long and was simply too much for most of us to bear. And on that basis — I will not watch the film again any time soon. But I won’t go as far as never again. Let’s revisit that rape and violence against women again later on.

Didion: There’s a less horrific, but more affecting scene in which Bolkovac goes out to the woods to find a woman dead — a woman she’d tried to protect, a woman who’d suffered extreme beatings earlier, a woman she’d persuaded to testify against the traffickers, now killed by them. For the first time, Bolkovac breaks down, even though she’s surrounded by some of the worst corrupt cops and UN employees (who are certainly responsible for the murder): she screams and cries. It’s a striking scene that, for me, completely worked in achieving what you describe: showing her sense of absolute horror at what’s taking place there. It’s a strange scene, too, in that it didn’t provoke me to tears (and everything gets me teary-eyed) — but I felt a true power in the scene.

There’s also a subplot that doesn’t involve Bolkovac: a story of one of the victims’ mothers, who asks her sister-in-law for money to travel to Sarajevo to find her daughter. Very slowly, she comes to realize that her brother is the very person who sold his niece into sex slavery. This, for me, was the plot element that showed how simple greed for money is the core of the entire problem.

JustMeMike: There you go. Weisz breaks down with a combination of horror and guilt after she finds that Irka has been killed. Very potent stuff. I am on board with your thought about Greed for Money being at the core of the entire problem. Greed rarely exists on its own. It generally goes with seeking of power. When combined, there always will be victims.

But let’s take a look at the film the opposite angle. What did we like about the film? I liked Weisz/Bolkovac’s fearlessness and determination. I liked Redgrave’s grace and her soft looking but steely authority. Talk about aging and looking great. Wow. And I liked Straithairn’s beard.

Didion: And let’s specifically note that if at all possible, one really ought to have such piercing, bright blue eyes if one is permitted to age with a magnificent head of silver hair like Redgrave’s. I’d also be willing to watch David Straithairn butter pieces of bread for two hours straight.

Weisz was great — really great. But no matter how good she was, and no matter how she seemed absolutely present for all her scenes, the part didn’t allow her a whole lot of range. Sorry to keep bringing up Erin Brockovich, but that part was kind of delicious in contrast — Bolkovac was much more straight-up police in contrast.

JustMeMike: Since we’ve covered stuff that we didn’t care for, and then we slid over to stuff we did like, I’m wondering if we can find something where there is a divergence of opinion. To start I’ll offer a question — why are these monitors granted diplomatic immunity?

Didion: We do seem to be arriving at an unusual level of agreement on this one. I’m not sure why they’re granted immunity, but we can speculate that it was due to the perceived importance of protecting UN missions in general and perhaps concealing the complicity of higher-ups? Or at the very least protecting the higher-ups from having disregarded Bolkovac’s charges.

The more I think about it, the angrier I become — this film discusses such disturbing and important subjects, and shows how much they’ve been ignored by international overseers like the UN, yet it’s not a tight enough or persuasive enough film to make heads seriously roll. It was also weirdly buried with a late-summer release, as it’s the very furthest thing from a summer film — I mean, it had to compete with Rise of the Planet of the Apes!

JustMeMike: I guess we are still agreeing. The late summer opening may not be so weird. If the producer and releasing company privately feel that the film is flawed, then giving it a bad slot, as well as a limited opening, virtually guarantees a smaller ROI (return on investment). It’s called limiting your down-side because by reducing the number of screens you also reduce the number of physical pieces of film that you need.

How about this as a question: Is there something about Bolkovac’s make-up that we haven’t enough facts for? I mean in her divorce, and it was her second divorce, isn’t it still unusual for the court to decree that the husband got sole custody of the daughter. Why did that happen?

Since we don’t know — are we supposed to guess at a reason — or reasons: Is it possibly that Bolkovac was a woman who took up relationships rather easily? Maybe she slept with other police officers while still married?

And three — we witnessed a phone call from Bolkovac to the daughter — who seemed not to want to talk to her mother. The call ended all too quickly. So what is your take on these three events, either singly, or taken altogether as group?

Didion: Wow, I’ve got two very different responses to the question of Bolkovac’s personal life. The feminist in me says, I want her personal life to be as irrelevant as possible, because this is really a story about her whistleblowing. The one thing that seems obvious is that this is a woman who took her job so seriously that it was doubtless detrimental to her relationships. There’s a big moment early on when she decides to stay in Sarajevo rather than return to her daughter — and she decides to stay because she knows she’s doing good work there. Re: her custody agreement, I assumed that, as is becoming more common these days, a judge determined that her ex offered a more stable home life for her daughter than she could (and there’s a reference to her having a poor attorney). If there’s one thing I’ve learned from police procedurals on TV, it’s that cops are often too distracted to make good partners and parents. (Thank you, The Wire.)

I did find, however, that her relationship with the Dutch peacekeeper to be both wholly under-developed and more than a little nerve-wracking. I kept wondering whether he was really a bad guy, whether her leap into that relationship was poorly-considered. I think the filmmaker ultimately didn’t know how much to make this a biopic, how much to make it a thriller, and how much to make it a ripped-from-the-headlines tale. I wished Kondracki had either left out that storyline, or delved in further.

JustMeMike: You said, “As a feminist, I want her personal story to be as irrelevant as possible, because this is really a story about her whistle-blowing.” The underline italics are mine, not yours. But can you clarify that statement. Isn’t this about whistle-blowing? I think that you are right when stating that the whistle-blowing is more important than the personal story — but why is this from the perspective of a feminist, rather than just a perspective?

Didion: It gets back to Erin Brockovich (again), in which the story is humming along and she’s got the new thing going with the hot biker guy next door and she’s figuring out all the details of the PG&E coverup — and then the story screeches to a halt so she can get an earful about how she’s not spending enough time with her children. Message: women who really care about their work are bad mothers. I was furious with that element, because otherwise the film showed a working-class woman who’s given a chance to care about something beyond the usual caregiving blah blah blah.

So if Bolkovac had been portrayed as prone to extramarital sexual relationships with her co-workers and/or not a dedicated enough mother, the film would have engaged in that same kind of preachiness and cheap explanation: “oh, she’s interested in helping these women because she’s kind of a slut!” or, “her work is so absorbing that she’s returning to her old bad habits of being a bad mother!” Films are more inclined to indulge in that kind of cheap explanation with female characters more than with male characters.

Instead, I like the idea that she’s just kind of a normal, straight-laced police officer who’s appalled by the situation she encounters partly because it’s just an example of really bad police work.

JustMeMike: Okay, that works for me. Avoiding the personal story because it would come at the expense of the real story of the whistleblower. Makes sense, especially since you have experienced a similar story and witnessed a derailment because the main story was hijacked for a while.

But that last line is also puzzling. Do you really mean the situation that Bolkovac encounters is an example of bad police work? I have a problem with that. If a narcotics cop busts a drug dealer and confiscates drugs, but keeps a portion of the drugs for his own personal use, or for use in getting confidential informants to snitch, or even for re-sale, is that bad police work, or is that simply criminal behavior? I’d say that the private contractors who were heavily involved in sex trafficking were big-time criminals.

Didion: Whoops: I meant to refer to an early point in the film, when she sees the police failing to go after the wife-beating husband. It’s really early on, when no one suspects anything about the sex trafficking — and what I liked so much was that she seems to approach the issue wholly from the perspective that this is lazy/bad police work. That is, she didn’t respond “as a woman” or from any exaggerated feminine sympathy — she just wanted a crime prosecuted properly.

JustMeMike: Okay, makes sense. And yes, I liked that part very much. She became gung-ho about solving that one, and seeing that justice, or at least an investigation, stepped into the picture.

Didion: I think, after thinking about this for a couple of weeks, I most regret that Kondracki had chosen to make this as much of a thriller as it is. I think this made her inclined to gild the lily — as in, it made her exaggerate plot elements like the way the corrupt UN officials and peacekeepers went to such lengths to humiliate and discredit Bolkovac in order to keep beating and raping women sex slaves. I kept thinking, “Even if that’s true, it’s not believable, and once my trust in the story’s gone, I just don’t know what to do with all those gruesome images of women being beaten.”

JustMeMike: I’m with you on all of that including Kondracki’s decision to make the film into a thriller. Only I won’t go as far as you do. I think (like you) that this was her fundamental mistake. On that basis, I won’t call it a thriller. But I will go as far as to label it a thriller-wannabe.

Didion: I like the mixing of genres on the whole, but I do think here it muddies the waters. Can I ask one more question of you — that is, what do you think this does for Rachel Weisz’s career? I’ve been thinking lately that she’s making some smart choices lately — from The Constant Gardner to The Brothers Bloom to this … she’s good at American accents, and she’s getting a wide range of very smart acting imprinted onto the American conscience (and god knows this is where the movie money is made by international actors). What do you think — was this strategic?

JustMeMike: Absolutely strategic as in well-played. I recall first seeing her in a film about a sniper called Enemy at the Gates. She played a Russian girl called Tania Chernova and she certainly seemed European to me then. Now, she doesn’t seem European at all. I think she’s marvelous — she has the looks, and the smarts, and I think variable roles are her strong suite. By the way, Weisz has a new film coming quite soon — The Dream House — her co-stars are Daniel Craig and Naomi Watts. It is in the horror genre. Coincidentally, and strangely, Craig’s character is guess who — another Peter Ward.

Didion: Isn’t she great? And very well-educated (compared to many actors); I like to give kudos to the smart ladies.

I saw a preview for The Dream House recently — alongside trailers for a number of creepy thrillers (one called Martha Marcy May Marlene [whew!], and the other called Take Shelter, with the always-creepy Michael Shannon). Looks like a damn good Halloween season coming up, if you ask me.

So, JMM, do you have any final thoughts on this one? A quip? Some kind of pun on the idea of whistleblowing?

JustMeMike: Not really… I don’t think this film needs a pun from me. I would recommend the film and despite its flawed structural elements, one can walk away at least pleased that some one, even from the wilderness of Bosnia stood up and blew the whistle. I have a feeling that I should give you the last word so you can get in a final thought about on-screen violence against women. By the way, I’ll be in China for Halloween.

Didion: I’m less enthusiastic about the film overall, and not just because of the on-screen portrayal of violence against women. As much as I appreciate what Weisz and Kondracki wanted to do, it’s not as good a film as I’d like, or effective enough re: advocacy against sex trafficking.

Many thanks, JMM — and let’s keep our eyes peeled for good films coming out this fall that might offer more good conversation — maybe even one of these creepy Halloween flicks.

JustMeMike: Thank you Didion for the enjoyable dialogue. I’m ready and more than willing to toss back a few more Sidecars with you again.

Didion: Word.

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.)