Miral’s missed opportunities

April 6, 2011

Laura Durkay reviews the film Miral about a teenage girl living in occupied East Jerusalem during the first Palestinian Intifada.

MIRAL, DIRECTED by Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, has the distinction of being the first American film with a Palestinian protagonist.

The film tells the story of four Palestinian women living between 1948 and the present day. It focuses most of its time on Miral, a teenage girl living in occupied East Jerusalem during the time of the first Palestinian Intifada or uprising from 1987 to 1993.

Miral has received substantial publicity, including a screening at the United Nations and hysterical criticism from Zionist organizations denouncing it as anti-Israel propaganda.

For those who know little about Palestine, or even believe that Palestinians are the aggressors in the conflict, Miral will undoubtedly be eye-opening. The violence of the Israeli state is clearly on display--a home demolition in a refugee camp, a demonstration met with live ammunition and a terrifying scene of torture in an Israeli police station.

Freida Pinto in Miral
Freida Pinto in Miral

Certainly, any American film that portrays Palestinians as human beings and not as mindless terrorists should be considered a step forward. But unfortunately, Miral's artistic and political weaknesses make it a half-step forward at best.

The casting of Indian actress Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) as the film's Palestinian heroine--and Schnabel's complete ignorance of why some people might object to this --should have been the first warning signs. This also meant that the film would be made in English, with a few token phrases of Arabic thrown in, despite the fact that most of the supporting cast was composed of native Arabic speakers.

Add to that a clunky, overdramatic script, poor directing of even veteran actors and some comically bad ageing makeup, and you're already in trouble. But it's Miral's political flaws that really sink the film.

MOST OF the film takes place in occupied East Jerusalem. Yet through the magic of Hollywood, the occupation is made invisible in people's daily lives.

Review: Movies

Miral, directed by Julian Schnabel, starring Freida Pinto, Alexander Siddig and Hiam Abbass.

No hostile soldiers roam the streets of the Old City, alternating between flirting with tourists and harassing the locals for sport. No crowds of women linger outside police stations waiting for news of arrested husbands, sons and brothers. No squat green police cars prowl the streets at night declaring curfew. Miral and her father cheerfully plant flowers outside the Al Aqsa Mosque without ever having to pass through a phalanx of riot cops to get there.

While the film does depict the violence of Israeli soldiers and police, it is always shown as a reaction to Palestinian resistance. What Miral misses entirely is that Palestinian resistance is itself a reaction to the lived reality of Israeli colonization.

It's the daily, lifelong parade of insults, humiliations, difficulties, pain and suffering imposed by Israeli occupation and apartheid that fuels Palestinian resistance again and again. Palestinians are the target of a decades-old ethnic-cleansing operation. They don't have to do anything special to invite repression from the Israeli state--they just have to exist.

Without showing the daily grind of misery and oppression that Palestinians face, it is difficult to understand what drives Palestinian resistance. It becomes completely unmotivated, or motivated by abstract hatred of "the Jews"--two of Hollywood's favorite ways of portraying violence by Arabs.

Also missing is the mass popular character of the First Intifada, which was overwhelmingly a nonviolent movement of strikes, boycotts and unarmed street protests--not unlike those sweeping the Middle East today.

These omissions make sense given the film's hostility to resistance activity of any kind. The two characters who are unambiguously positive forces in Miral's life--her adoptive father (Alexander Siddig) and teacher Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass)--each have a scene in which they berate her for being involved in political activities.

While Miral herself frequently gives militant speeches, her forays into resistance seem naive and ineffectual and universally end in disaster. The upshot of this view is that Palestinians are shown primarily as victims, not as active in opposing their oppression. While showing Palestinians as victims may be better than showing them as terrorists, it's ultimately not good enough.

Miral's wish for "one country where we can live together with equal rights" is dismissed as the silly dream of an idealistic child, as the film becomes an unabashed pep rally for the Oslo Accords in its closing moments. The message is perfectly clear--resistance is dangerous and undesirable; negotiations are the only way.

While this message may seem painfully out of date given the recent revelations in the Palestine Papers about the complete uselessness of the "peace process," it fits with Schnabel's politics, which are not remotely anti-Zionist.

"It's not anti-Israeli at all," Schnabel said of the film in an interview with film news website The Wrap. "It's pro-Israeli. It is saying, 'Hey, I love this country! Let's fix it.'"

IF MIRAL were the only film being made about Palestine, it might seem like a bigger step forward. But it is being released during an unprecedented renaissance in Palestinian filmmaking.

The past three years have seen a mini-explosion of films about Palestine by Palestinians--Annemarie Jacir's Salt of this Sea, Najwa Najjar's Pomegranates and Myrrh, Cherien Dabis' Amreeka and Elia Suleiman's spectacular The Time That Remains, as well as the joint Israeli-Palestinian collaborations Ajami and Lemon Tree.

While these films vary in quality and political intention, they all show Palestinians as human, three-dimensional characters. And they have all been shown in U.S. theaters, although only in limited release. Compared to the diversity and sophistication of films being made by Palestinians themselves, Miral seems very much behind the times.

There is one sequence in Miral that deserves special mention. It stands apart from the rest of the movie, so much so that it has been mentioned in almost every article about the film. After getting involved (in some never-quite-specified way) with a group of political activists, Miral is arrested late at night, interrogated, humiliated and beaten unconscious in an Israeli police station.

These scenes are so vivid, the little details of repression and resistance so accurate and so keenly observed, that it momentarily feels like we're in a different movie--a much better and truer one. Even Pinto's performance improves, as she manages to convey both defiance and terror when facing her interrogators.

It's no surprise that this is a true story from Rula Jebreal's youth--a razor-sharp shard of reality embedded in a politically muddy and artistically mediocre film. Reality, it turns out, contains both more brutality and more courage than Schnabel is willing to show us throughout most of Miral.

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