MIAMI — In the spring of 2007, shortly after famed artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel won best director at the Cannes Film Festival for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” he met the Palestinian Rula Jebreal, a political journalist and TV personality working in Rome.
He was in the Italian capital for the opening of a show of his artwork at the Palazzo Venezia. She attended the opening and stayed for a VIP dinner that followed. They struck up a conversation. It didn’t take long for Jebreal to ask Schnabel if he would take a look at a screenplay based on her autobiographical novel “Miral,” the story of the founding of a Palestinian orphanage in 1948 and three generations of women caught in the crossfire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I said, ‘I probably won’t like it.’ Because I don’t like anything,” Schnabel says over a BLT at South Beach’s Raleigh Hotel. “I didn’t want, because she’s pretty, to act like I was going to like it. I think it’s bull——when people do that.”
In fact, Schnabel didn’t like that first screenplay. “I said, ‘It’s not very good. But it looks like it’s based on a great story. Can I read your book?”
Jebreal sent her novel along. Schnabel fell in love. First with the book, which he quickly agreed to turn into a movie — and then, during production, with the author.
Schnabel’s affair with the Haifa-born beauty, who is 22 years his junior, led to a divorce from his second wife, Basque actress and model Olatz Lopez Garmendia, with whom he has twin sons.
But the juicy behind-the-scenes drama is not the only controversy surrounding the film, slated for a March release stateside. For one thing, the main character Miral, a fictionalized version of Jebreal, is played not by an Arab actress but by an Indian, “Slumdog Millionaire” star Freida Pinto. For another, the story is a mostly pro-Palestinian account of the longstanding conflict surrounding the state of Israel. Schnabel, born in Brooklyn, happens to be Jewish. (His mother was president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.)
“I knew this would be controversial,” says Schnabel, who was in town during Art Basel Miami Beach to preview his new film and hold forth with art world VIPS invited to a post-film dinner at the New World Symphony’s gleaming new Frank Gehry-designed home. Five Schnabel paintings were auctioned that night, raising $1 million for J/P HRO (Haitian Relief Organization), founded by actor Sean Penn and philanthropist Diana Jenkins after last year’s devastating earthquake.
“Sean is a good friend,” says Schnabel. Though they agree to disagree on certain topics.
Penn, who was at the South Beach dinner, is known for romanticizing Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. (He can get gushy about Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, too.) Schnabel, on the other hand, passionately explored the injustices of Cuba under Castro in 2000’s “Before Night Falls,” about acclaimed Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, who was censored, persecuted and jailed by the Cuban government for his homosexuality and anti-revolutionary stance. Penn made a cameo in the film.
“(Sean) knows what I think of Fidel Castro,” Schnabel says. “I would never sit down with Castro. What has happened in Cuba is unacceptable. I was in Cuba years ago for the Havana Film Festival and I was having a drink and smoking a cigar, and I was told if I wanted to talk to Castro I had to put the cigar and the drink down. I didn’t let go of either. He was 15 feet away from me. But I didn’t want to chit-chat with Fidel Castro.”
Still, Schnabel doesn’t want to be called anti-Castro any more than he wants to be pegged as pro-Palestine or anti-Israel. Or the reverse.
“I don’t want to be the poster boy for the left or the right. When I made ‘Before Night Falls,’ I didn’t want people to say it was anti-Castro. I wanted to tell Reinaldo’s point of view. I felt the same way about ‘Miral.’ I wanted to talk about real people who are stuck in the middle of a conflict. I learned a lot making this movie.”
Schnabel says being Jewish makes him the right person to tell the Palestinian story: “If a Palestinian person made this people would say, ‘Oh well, he has an axe to grind.’”
The film, like the book, begins in 1948, as violence overtakes Jerusalem, and tells the story of the real Hind Husseini, who finds 55 abandoned children and takes them all in, eventually establishing the Dar El-Tifel orphanage in what had been her family’s home. Years later, Jebreal was taken to the orphanage by her father after her mother, who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather as a child and grew up to have a troubled life, committed suicide by walking into the sea.
In the film, it is Jebreal herself that you see wading into the water to end it all.
“The girl who was playing her mother doesn’t swim,” says Schnabel. “I got her swimming lessons so that she could go deeper in the water. But in the end I dressed up Rula to re-enact her mother’s suicide. Everything was like that with the making of this film. The whole story really breaks my heart. That’s why I did it.”
But did Schnabel worry about what his mother might have thought about the movie? Some call “Miral” one-sided and unfair to the plight of the Israelis.
“It’s impossible to tell an exhaustive story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I told the story of that girl. I know my mother wanted to build a utopia in Israel, a democratic place where Jewish people could live in peace and flourish. I want that, too. As (filmmaker) Jean Renoir said, the trouble with the world is, ‘Everyone has his reasons.’ But there is no reason for a child to die, whether he is Israeli or Palestinian. Civil society is being held hostage by fanatics on both sides.”
Right. But what would his mother, who died in 2002, have said?
“I saw my aunt two days ago. I drove up to Palm Beach. She’s 92. She said to me, ‘Your mother would be so proud.’”