VENICE, Italy – The latest movie by Julian Schnabel couldn't have been more timely.
"Miral" chronicles decades of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the rarely seen perspective of Palestinian women. The film, dedicated by the director to everyone on both sides who wants peace, made its world premiere Thursday at the Venice Film Festival, just as Israeli and Palestinian leaders sat down in Washington for the first direct negotiations in years.
"I am not a politician or a statesman, but I don't see how an artist can do any worse than politicians have done so far," said Schnabel. His previous movies include "Basquiat" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
Film producer Tarak Ben Ammar said he wished Israeli and Palestinian leaders could have seen the movie before their talks, which U.S officials hope will lead to agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state.
"I wish they would have seen the movie yesterday, to have been touched, because through the heart, the mind opens," Ben Ammar told journalists. "We are not naive enough to believe that this movie will change the world. But it will change the hearts of people who know nothing about Palestine."
The movie chronicles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from 1948-1994 — stopping a year after Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, signed the Oslo Accords providing a plan for Palestinian self-rule. The movie notes in its closing credits that the process never has been completed.
It is based on a novel by Palestinian writer Rula Jebreal, a composite of her own life and the events that shaped it that is centered around a school for Palestinian orphans of the conflict — herself among them.
Jebreal said the book was an homage to her father and her teachers, "who understood that in some way education was the key to becoming a pacifist."
"It is the story of a big land and a little girl who grows up and survives such a devastating conflict because she has somebody who helped her," Jebreal said. "I think there are many youths seeking and wanting this help."
The story starts in 1948, when a Palestinian woman, Hind Husseini, finds 55 children left orphaned in the Deir Yassin massacre, in which more than 250 Palestinian villagers were killed. Husseini takes the children to her home, feeds them and gives them a place to sleep. Soon more come — until she has established an orphanage and school in her family's home.
Thirty years later, the father of girl named Miral turns her over to Husseini after her mother's suicide. She is sheltered in the school until the first Intifada, when she and the other girls are sent to teach children in the refugee camps.
There, Miral, portrayed by Freida Pinto of "Slumdog Millionaire" fame, is confronted by the poverty of the Palestinian people, and her political self is born.
Themes of the movie — like the strength of personal relationships across the political divide — were echoed in the making of the film. In real life, Schnabel, a Jewish New Yorker who for years avoided engaging in the Palestinian issue — and Jebreal have become a couple.
Schnabel said he relied heavily on Jebreal in keeping the film authentic.
"I wanted to know what was going to be in a 15-year-old Muslim girls room, and what was not. What was going to be in a refugee camp," he said.
When they put four chairs in the lot of a refugee camp, Jebreal commented that it "looked like a four-star hotel," Schnabel said. Normally it would be bare.
Jebreal was their guide around the Palestinian territories, he said, and the doors to the American Colony Hotel, next door to Jebreal's orphanage, opened up to the crew because they had known her as a girl.
In turn, Jebreal said Schnabel's presence gave her strength to confront her past.
"I understood it would be a painful experience, seeing Yasmine Al Massri play the role of my mother being raped, and facing my family, who didn't want to know anything about this story because it was considered a dishonor to discuss an attack publicly. These were painful choices, but necessary," she said.
In the end, Schnabel said, the movie is about highlighting common values.
"The fact is that the values that were instilled in me by my mother were the same as those instilled in her by Hind Husseini," Schnabel said. "One of the reasons I made this film is it was so obvious to me that there were so many more similarities between these people than differences. I felt it was my responsibility to confront this issue, because maybe I spent most of my life receding from going to Israel, receding from my life as a Jewish person."
"Miral" is Schnabel's fourth feature film. He says he is not interested in making another one "at least for a couple of years. I am just interested in bringing this movie to the public."
"Miral" is one of 22 films, plus a surprise film yet to be announced, in the running for the Golden Lion, to be awarded on Sept. 11.