The acclaimed New York artist Julian Schnabel never intended to make movies. But when concerns over the way a biopic about his late painter friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat, was going compelled him to take over and direct it himself, he became an accidental filmmaker. "I did it as a rescue mission," he says, "and had no intention of making another film. But it was just something that came very naturally to me."
He went on to win praise for Before Night Falls, starring Javier Bardem as the gay Cuban poet, Reynaldos Arenas, and, especially, for 2007's awards-laden The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered total body paralysis after a stroke. Schnabel made that film for his cancer-stricken father, Jack, "because he was stuck inside his body, dying". His latest film, Miral, now connects him to the humanitarian spirit of his Zionist mother, Esta, who died in 2002, and to his Jewish roots.
Adapted from Palestinian Israeli author Rula Jebreal's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Miral explores the Middle East conflict through the experiences of several generations of Palestinian women, and the influence of Hind Husseini, who used her wealth to transform her Jerusalem home into an orphange/school for Palestinian girls, after stumbling across 55 abandoned and destitute children in the city's streets in 1948. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rumbled on, she taught her charges the importance of education over violence.
"She was a modern Arab woman, a Muslim," says Jebreal, who grew up under Husseini's tutelage and became a prominent political journalist in Italy. "She understood from the beginning that there's no way for sustainable diplomacy or peace without regular people having access to education. And she also understood that the women are the weak part of the conflict. So she tried to save as many as she could."
When Schnabel read Jebreal's book, after meeting her in Rome (they now live together in New York), he was impressed by its vivid vignettes of everyday life, parallel stories, and the feeling it gave him that he "knew Rula since she was a little girl". He helped her adapt it into a screenplay, but knew he would have to visit Israel before filming began to see for himself what life was like there.
I wanted to change minds and this was my way of doing it
Although he admits to not having known about the complexities of the Middle East conflict when they started the project, Israel has been a part of Schnabel's consciousness since early childhood. His mother twice became president of Hadassah [the Women's Zionist Organisation of America] in Brooklyn. She helped survivors of the Holocaust find places to live (his older sister remembers strangers walking around their house in her parents' clothes), and raised money to plant trees in Israel. "We saw Exodus at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City and everybody stood up when Hatikvah came on," Schnabel recalls. "They put their hand on their chest and Mother was very proud. She aligned herself with Israel and every battle that was fought. But I think that the kind of peace and human rights that she would expect for Jewish people, she would expect for everyone."
Schnabel visited Israel for the first time in 1987, hoping that he and Esta could spend time there together. However, the first intafada broke out and she was unable to join him, "because my dad was scared there was a war on. Anyway," he says, "I felt I owed it to my mother to go there and really see what the issue was."
Ironically, Schnabel was promoting Miral at last month's London Film Festival at the same time as Mike Leigh was explaining his reasons for boycotting Israel over the government's new loyalty oath. Asked whether he believed in cultural boycotts, Schnabel said: "I went over there because I needed the help of Israelis. People that worked in Tel Aviv - cameramen, production designers - worked on my movie, which is not something that is exonerating anybody for whatever's happened. I think the film draws a pretty good mirror up to people's faces on both sides of the conflict. They live in that country but they don't believe in what the government's doing; the government's not representing those people.
"My attitude is to jump in, deal with it, confront it. I wanted to change minds, and this was my way of doing it."
For Jebreal, the most important line in the film is spoken by a young PLO activist character who ultimately rejects violence (and is killed by his own people as a consequence): "Our allies are not the Arabs and not even the United Nations. Our allies are the Israelis themselves, and they're not going anywhere and neither are we." This was also Hind Husseini's vision, Jebreal says. "She knew that there's no solution for one without the other."
Adds Schnabel: "My mother was a humanitarian and Miral is also a civil rights film. It's about people stuck in the middle. They're not fanatics. They're not militants… and then there's this teacher who's saying: 'Don't be throwing rocks, that ain't the way to do it.'"