By Susan Abulhawa
I didn’t get a sneak preview nor was I among the VIPs who attended the premier of Miral at the UN General Assembly. I had to wait for its release in a nearby theatre, which luckily turned out to be only an hour away in Philadelphia. That means I had read and heard plenty of reviews of the film before I actually watched it. They were mixed and varied reactions, but I think I was able to leave them outside the theatre before I entered so I could decide for myself. There was one thing, however, that I couldn’t leave at the door: my Palestinian-ness. So, I went in wanting to like the film. I was holding my breath hoping to see a compelling Palestinian narrative, told by a Palestinian woman who lived at Dar el Tifl, the orphanage where I too had spent years of my adolescence in the early 80s.
Miral is the story of four Palestinian women of different generations and circumstances: Hind el Husseini, an unmarried heiress from a prominent Jerusalem family who founded Dar el Tifl and devoted her life to empowering young Palestinian girls; Nadia, a 1948 Palestinian (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) who leaves home to escape persistent rape by her stepfather but was never able to outrun her own demons; Fatima, Nadia’s cellmate in an Israeli prison; and finally, Miral, Nadia’s daughter who goes to live at Dar el Tifl after her mother, Nadia commits suicide.
I knew that Israel and its various American lobbying wings had protested the showing of this film at the UN, claiming it to be anti-Israel. That gave me even more hope that I was about to watch the first honest portrayal of life as a Palestinian growing up under Israeli military occupation. By the time the film was over, however, the only reason I could fathom for such protestations was that Miral is perhaps the first semi-mainstream film to show Palestinians as something more akin to human rather than monsters to be reviled or pathetic and destitute refugees to be pitied. Indeed, Miral succeeds in showing a human face to Palestinians. Pittance and basic as that might be – to be recognized as fully human, even if only in a film – it is perhaps a feat after six decades of little more than the damaging and painful stereotypes.
My reaction to the film was mostly cerebral because it failed to pull me in emotionally. If I were to depict the film graphically, I’d draw a more or less flat line. There was one exception and it is this scene: Miss Hind is standing alone by the gates of the orphanage and then the film cuts to her funeral. The abrupt transition knotted my throat with the realization that I never got a chance to say good bye to that incredible woman who took me in when there was no other safe place in the world for me. I never got a chance to thank her, or tell her how profoundly she touched my life. So I cried in the theatre for the loss of el Sit Hind, as we called her. Although my waterworks have more to do with my own memories and regrets, credit must also be given to Hiam Abbas, whose portrayal of Miss Hind was authentic and brilliant. In fact, it was Hiam’s acting that made Hind Husseini’s story shine above the stories of the other three women.
There were a few “insider” bits in the film that only those who knew Miss Hind would have noticed. When a baby left by the mosque door is brought to her, she takes it and remarks that the name “Hedaya” might be suitable. Hedaya means “gifts” in Arabic and it happens that that baby was a real little girl whom Miss Hind later adopted. Hedaya was a headmistress of sorts when I lived at Dar el Tifl. She was a student when my mother lived there many years before me and the rivalry between the two of them meant that Hedaya didn’t like me much. I smiled and silently thanked Rula Jebreal for writing her into the script. In a way, it seemed a gift from Rula to Hedaya, who looked after us, even if she wasn’t always very nice.
In addition to Hiam Abbas’ excellent portrayal of Miss Hind, Alexander Siddig, who played the role of Miral’s father, was also believable and well-done. On the other hand, why Frieda Pinto was chosen to play Miral eludes me entirely. Every time she opened her mouth, all I heard was a Hindi accent. Her acting, too, fell far short of the role. For example, what could have been poignant or emotional points in the film – when she thanks “Mama Hind” or when she learns that the father she has known her whole life was not biologically related to her – ultimately felt insincere and contrived. The role of Fatima was even more badly done that at times it seemed she was merely reading from a teleprompter. I can’t blame the actor solely. The script was awkward and Fatima’s story seemed incomplete. The character tells us that she decided to plant a bomb in a crowded theatre to ‘make them suffer like they make us suffer.’ Yet all we see of her suffering is that she lost her job as a nurse after helping wounded Jordanian soldiers escape back to Jordan. As a Palestinian, of course, I know the suffering she’s talking about, but someone just watching the film will have no idea. Herein are the two biggest problems with this film, both of which have to do with the political aspect. On one hand, there was too much politics; and on the other, there was too little of it.
By too much, I mean that the political story overshadowed the human one such that it often felt like the characters were created to serve as mere vehicles to deliver a political message. While the use of art to illuminate a political reality is an honorable literary and artistic tradition, I feel that the artist’s or writer’s foremost loyalty should be to his or her characters, not the political, social, or historic backdrop. A writer’s mandate is to tell the story of their characters with honesty, humanity, and authenticity; in doing so, the backdrop and back stories emerge. Unfortunately, Miral gave center stage to the political situation, from which characters emerged as a supporting cast. That said, I do understand how easy it is to fall into that trap as a writer. When the political reality has defined your whole life, created wounds and kept them bleeding for as long as you can remember, that is the part you want the world to know about. You want to scream about a system of oppression that sees you as less than human. It’s hard not to and I can understand this shortcoming of the film. But it’s the reason the film does not succeed as a work of art.
This brings me to the worst and most unpalatable, even unforgivable, aspect of this film. I’ve saved the bad for last; it’s the ‘too little’ part. Someone with no background on the realities of this wretched conflict will walk away from Miral with the sense that it’s a dispute between two essentially equal sides who simply don’t see eye to eye. There was no real hint of the gross imbalance of power or the racially motivated destruction of life that inches deeper and deeper every day into what little remains of Palestine to Palestinians. No hint of the apartheid system employed as a means of slow ethnic cleansing. Even when it came to the bloody orphans of Deir Yassin, we are told that “soldiers” killed their parents. Anyone with knowledge of history or the social circumstances of the time would have known that the residents of that village would have likely been screaming warnings to others to run because “the Jews are here”. The word “soldier” then referred to the British and I can’t help but believe that the use of that word was meant to tiptoe around the fact that terrorist Jewish gangs butchered civilians in home after home in that village. At one point we see the British flag lowered and the Israeli flag raised, perpetuating the idea that Palestine was never there. These are just some examples of a fundamental dishonesty that underpins Miral.
Moviegoers watching what little is shown of this reality will likely judge Israeli actions as justified, however distasteful. In other words, the minimally negative light in which Israel is shown is contextualized. Not so for Palestinians. Take for example Schnabel’s treatment of what could have happened to Israelis in a movie theatre when Fatima leaves a bomb under the seat [it never goes off, btw]. We see their innocent faces, one by one. They’re just like us, ordinary people just going to see a film. We see an unsuspecting couple making out, kissing in their seats. It’s not an emotional scene at all. But it does set the stage to give soldiers justification later on to beat Miral. The actions of the Israeli soldiers thus have context. On the other hand, Fatima seemingly decided to blow up a theatre full of people because she lost her job.
Another striking failure of this film is the scene of a home demolition. Schnabel shows us a random family being told to leave their home and then we see the walls of that home crumble as an unseen soldier demolishes it. Racially motivated demolition of Palestinian homes is a constant and lately accelerated reality for Palestinians. There are plenty of real footage of these evictions and subsequent destruction of homes that could have been rendered in the film. The reality of this monumentally traumatic racist policy is that children are often seen scrambling to save what little they can of their books and toys. Israeli soldiers rip people from their homes kicking and screaming. Neighbors come out to help and are met with brutal suppression by soldiers. Women cry, they raise their prayers to the heavens for mercy. The despair of the families contorts their faces into expressions that shatter a human heart with outrage and sadness. There was none of this in that in Schnabel’s interpretation. His treatment of what could have been an immensely emotional scene was nearly comatose. We see the stoic patriarch of the family clearly upset and the viewer possibly feels pity for him. There are no scattered personal belongings. The home seems empty when it’s destroyed. There are no traumatized children and next to nothing of the true human reaction to the intentional destruction of one’s home, one’s only refuge.
Footage of the first Intifada looked like street rioters faced with good police doing their job to restore order. There was nothing of Israel’s “break their bones” policy, or of their specific targeting of children, who were left with nothing to do but roam the streets when Israel enforced a “no school” ignorization policy for Palestinian children. This context – of the sheer brutality and racism of Israeli policies toward Palestinians – was largely missing. I’m not saying that a Palestinian film must incorporate all of these elements. But if you’re going to include it, do it with honestly, not obfuscation. To the extent that any of the realities on the ground were shown, it seemed almost like a preemptive framing of Israel’s ethnic cleansing, which is increasingly being recognized around the world. Ultimately, Miral is a Zionist’s cinematic rendering of a Palestinian story, replete with leftist Zionist messages. And this reviewer is frankly tired of other people telling our story for us, especially of Zionists framing who we are and what our motivations might be. I haven’t read the book or the screenplay to know how much of the film was Rula and how much was Schnabel. But I do know that there are Palestinian films that far exceed Miral in artistic expression, honesty, and authenticity. Salt of the Sea, by Annemarie Jacir, comes immediately to mind.
Finally, watching Miral was an important lesson for me personally because I am now looking at a contract that will potentially turn Mornings in Jenin into a film. I feel more strongly now that I must have a greater role in writing the screenplay.
All we have now is our story, our heritage and history, our humanity, and the truth of how we are being wiped off the map as a people. It is not appropriate to compromise our truth so the West might inch closer to seeing us as fully human. I feel this is what happened with Miral. It compromises our collective narrative to appease and it lacks the essential human dimension we expect to compel and provoke emotion. The excellent acting of Abbas and Siddig, the new ‘human face’ of Palestinians, and the inspiring life if Hind el Husseini just aren’t enough to redeem Miral.
– Susan Abulhawa is the author of Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010) and the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine (www.playgroundsforpalestine.org). She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.