Artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel

Acclaimed artist and filmmaker discusses the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict as it relates to his controversial new film and explains why one can’t separate a story from the way that it’s told.

Before making a name for himself in film, Julian Schnabel was prominent as a sculptor, painter and major figure in the neo-expressionist movement. His work is on display in museums around the world, including New York and Paris. Schnabel's filmmaking began as writer-director of Basquiat, a biopic about his artist friend. He went on to win acclaim for directing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which received four Oscar noms and a best director Golden Globe. His latest project is Miral, a film that revolves around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.


Tavis: Julian Schnabel is a widely regarded artist and filmmaker whose previous movie projects include “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” and “Before Night Falls.” His latest film is set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. The film is called “Miral,” starring Frieda Pinto from “Slumdog Millionaire.” Here now, some scenes from “Miral.”
Tavis: First of all, an honor to have you on the program.
Julian Schnabel: Good to see you.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Schnabel: Happy to be here.
Tavis: Glad to have you. Before I get into the movie, let me start with the news of the week, of course. As we sit at this hour, no one has taken, on the Palestinian side, has taken credit for this; as a matter of fact, to the contrary. Every Palestinian I’ve been able to read so far online decries what has happened in Jerusalem with regard to this bombing. Your thoughts about the bombing?
Schnabel: Well, it’s counterproductive and it’s a tragedy, and violence begets violence. The whole point of the film is that this has to stop, the insanity on both sides, and anybody that kills a child is a murderer, whether it’s a Palestinian child or an Israeli child. So it’s grim.
That being said, somehow I feel some moment the civil society in both camps will just stand up and have a nonviolent revolution somehow and these fanatics on both sides will just – their voices will get, what is it, squelched by the impulse towards democracy and freedom and civil rights on both sides. So it’s a mess.
Tavis: You said a few things now that I want to go back and kind of unpack, or get you to unpack, if I can, in no particular order.
Schnabel: Sure, sure.
Tavis: I’m fascinated by a phrase you used, because I’ve used this phrase many times in my own conversations and lectures relative to this particular peace process, or lack thereof, in the Middle East, and it is this notion that it oftentimes seems to me that there is not the same value placed on babies on both sides here.
If you believe that all life has equal value, that all life is precious, then it makes this thing so much more difficult to understand, to wrap your brain around, if you really believe that all life has equal value. So since you said something similar to that, tell me more about your sense as to whether or not in this ongoing conflict in the region and beyond the region you believe that politically – politically – people truly do believe that all life on both sides has equal value.
Schnabel: Well, I think that there’s a lot of people that don’t believe that, unfortunately. When I read Rula’s book there was –
Tavis: The book on which the movie is based.
Schnabel: Yeah, Rula Jebreal wrote a book called “Miral,” and essentially it’s a diary of her experience growing up as an orphan child in east Jerusalem. After reading her book I wrote her a note, and in the note I said, “If there’s one thing that everybody on this planet has in common, we’ve all been a child once, where we weren’t responsible for our destiny. A child is something that can be nurtured or discouraged, and that’s what the movie will be about.”
So what has happened since – for 63 years, things have been in this prolonged state of war and the people in the middle somehow – they didn’t pick their destination. The girl didn’t design this landscape. She’s growing up in it. It’s not just her life, it tells the story of Hind Husseini, who in 1948 found these 55 children in a warzone and drew a line around them and said, “Okay, you’re safe in here. This is a school.”
I guess inside there were 3,000 girls in this school. With the wall, there’s less than 100 girls in the school now. It’s still open. But the wall can’t stop terrorism. A bomb blew up in Jerusalem because people will get – somehow they will get through a wall, whatever will happen. You can’t do it like that. You have to do it by opening the hearts of people, not building a wall around them.
Tavis: Yet you can’t legislate morality; so if this could be legislated away it would have been resolved by now. If you could draw lines away, that might have been done by now. So to your point about getting to the heart, there is a morality issue here at play. How do you wrestle with that?
Schnabel: Well, I think as a Jewish person I am very proud of the democracy. My mother was the president of Hadas in Brooklyn in 1948 and had this dream of building a Jewish homeland. I think that it’s a dream that all Jewish people have, but I think that Palestinians have to have the same rights as Jewish people. In the United States, if I criticize the government, you’d think I was a patriot or maybe I might be a politician, because there is debate going on all the time.
But if you criticize the policy in Israel, you’re seen as anti-Israeli. If you love the country, you want to improve it. You want people to embody the values that you think are the inalienable rights – dignity, respect for every human life.
So this insanity has to stop. I think that the civil society on both sides is being held hostage by fanatics, and so I think we have a democracy in this country, I think. I thought I was free to say what I – my parents made me feel like I was free to say what I want and I think that I am, but I think Yitzhak Rabin had a great idea, but he was killed because he wanted to stop the settlements.
That’s unfortunate, but somehow we have to learn the word “forgiveness,” and instead of being on both sides we have to think of Palestinians as partners. Because the thing that everybody in that region lives with is they all want their kids to come home at the end of the day.
Everyone, whether they’re Palestinians or Israelis, they don’t know if their kids are going to come home at the end of the day when they go out to school. How can people live like that?
Tavis: How do you put out a movie, even though it’s very clear – you’ve made it clear, the advertisements make it clear, this is a movie based on a novel, the story of one particular person?
Schnabel: Exactly.
Tavis: That’s clearly what it is, and yet when you put it out – and you know where I’m going with this –
Schnabel: Sure.
Tavis: – all political hell breaks loose, even though you’re clear on what the movie is. All political hell breaks loose because even putting out a movie telling one person’s story gets people ratcheted up on both sides of this.
As a filmmaker, how do you walk that line? How do you tell a story, put it out there, and not get sucked in, pulled into the politics of it when you’re just trying to tell a story?
Schnabel: I appreciate that, and I think the thing is that you cannot separate the way a story is told from the story, also. So many times we end up talking about the issues of the politics rather than the movie itself, and if the movie is boring it doesn’t matter how important the topic is. People won’t be moved by it. Now, if the job of the movie is to make you care about the characters and you have empathy with these characters, is there something wrong with that?
Is there something wrong if we care about these characters? Are we supposed to hate these characters? So when people say – like the AJC didn’t want the – there was a screening at the United Nations (unintelligible).
Tavis: Oh, I know well. There have –
Schnabel: Well, I’m telling the audience about that.
Tavis: Sure, please, yeah.
Schnabel: We showed the movie in the general assembly and Joseph Dice, who was the president of the general assembly, was asked not to show the movie and that it was an anti-Israeli thing to do, and the birth of the state of Israeli occurred in the United Nations.
I thought that Obama was so courageous to tackle this issue of the settlements at the beginning of his administration, and then I think the Jewish lobby and so much pressure was put on him, so he backed off on that. But he did go to Cairo and make a speech and encouraged all those people and treated them with respect, and treated them with dignity.
These people took him at his word. I think there’s an extraordinary revolution going on where people just want to be treated with respect, they want to have a right to partake in their government, and I think that is spreading all over the region.
I think something has to happen in Israel also, because we can’t have a democracy that’s based on some kind of liaison with a guy like Mubarak, who was a tyrant, and it’s okay for us to have a democracy here but not for everybody around us.
So here I am talking about politics because somehow – but the problem is that people feel like I need to testify, or they need to testify, for their group. They need to represent their group.
Tavis: Sure.
Schnabel: They’re losing the “I.” They can’t realize this is this girl’s story. This is her perspective. This is her memory. These are the people that formed who she was.
Tavis: You explained this remarkably well, the battle on both sides of this film being seen. I noted, I’m sure as others have, in the advertising campaign, you can’t fade the Weinstein Company; they know how to make a controversy and make it work.
So I love how they’ve taken the controversy and in all the ads they’re suggesting this is the movie that they don’t want you to see, the movie they tried to stop from coming. I raise that only to ask whether or not there is in all this controversy perhaps something good for the film, because it is being talked about because it’s become so controversial. You guys are smart enough to use that controversy, perhaps to drive people to go see it. In the end, wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Schnabel: Absolutely. I love the ad. On the other hand, when I look at it and I see the word “they,” I don’t like the word “they,” because when someone says, “Well, who’s ‘they?'” I would have to say, “‘They’ are the ones that don’t want to open their hearts. They are the ones who don’t want to empathize or who would shut down the notion of dialogue.”
“They” is the person that put a bomb in a bus to kill innocent people. People that don’t want to – there’s got to be a way other than violence to solve this problem. Another thing is that – I’m just thinking that it’s not just about one person actually in the movie, because she doesn’t represent all Palestinians.
There’s one Palestinian that tries to blow up a movie theater, and there’s another Palestinian who’s a father who’s trying to protect his daughter and prevent her from getting involved in a political mess. There’s a teacher saying to her student, “The difference between you and the kids in the refugee camp is this school.”
Tavis: But it’s one person’s story.
Schnabel: Exactly. I think that in the same way that the “Diary of Anne Frank” was one person’s story, I think this is a diary of this girl. So it’s really – my job as an artist was to portray or make a portrait of her, and portray her reality, not my 20/20 omniscient version of the whole inexhaustible concept of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
Tavis: Well, you did it remarkably well. There is a lot of controversy on this, as you well know. It is one person’s story, but a powerful story. It’s called “Miral,” brought to us by Julian Schnabel. Good to have you on the program, and all the best on the project.
Schnabel: Thank you so much.
Tavis: No, I’m honored to have you here.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm