Published October 07, 2010
RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Indian actress who starred in "Slumdog Millionaire" has moved from the slums of Mumbai to the squalid refugee camps of the West Bank in a new film: the story of a defiant Palestinian girl who wants to fight against Israel in a coming of age story with a Mideast twists.
"Miral," directed by award-winning artist Julian Schnabel and with cameos by Willem Dafoe and Vanessa Redgrave, stands apart for more than its star power.
Due for U.S. release in December, it's also likely to give Western audiences — some perhaps more used to movies depicting Arabs as violent Islamic militants — a compassionate view of the Palestinians.
For Mumbai-raised Freida Pinto, 25, who became a star after Slumdog shot from obscurity to box-office success and eight Academy Awards, it was a chance for a different setting.
"Miral" sweeps across decades of the Mideast conflict. The cinematography lays out beautiful Palestinian landscapes and Pinto glows in her scenes. But the dialogue comes across at times as preachy, and Schnabel seems to try pack in as much Palestinian history as possible in the 112-minute film.
For the filmmakers, the message is the key.
"The ordinary American who knows nothing about Palestine and knows nothing about our cause — it will be the first time he will sit and watch this story," said Yasmine al-Massri, a 31-year-old Paris-based Palestinian actress who plays Pinto's mother.
At a news conference in Ramallah before the screening late Thursday, some Palestinian movie crew members said they hoped Pinto's star power would draw audiences into cinemas and that Schnabel's Jewish faith would deflect claims of bias.
"It's a Jewish American director who is telling a Palestinian story," said al-Massri.
Schnabel was named "best director" at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and awarded him a top prize for his movie "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
Pinto brings wide experience to the role despite her youth. She is currently appearing as a neighbor of a conflicted writer in the latest Woody Allen movie, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" and will co-star in the upcoming Greek mythology action tale "Immortals" and a "Planet of the Apes" prequel, "Rise of the Apes."
In "Miral," which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last month, Pinto's title heroine is sent to a Palestinian children's institution in Jerusalem when her alcoholic mother commits suicide and her conservative Muslim father struggles to raise her.
Headstrong, Miral tumbles into the political storms lashing around her: it's the late 1980s and Palestinians are rebelling against Israel's military occupation. Miral tries to fight Israel and battle her father, at the same time as she falls for a handsome Palestinian fighter.
The movie was filmed over three months in 2009 with a crew of about 150 people and a budget of $15 million, according to local crew members.
It's based on the tumultuous biography of Palestinian-Italian journalist Rula Jebreal, stretching back in time to tell the stories of her mother, her mother's savior, a nurse hardened by war who tries to bomb an Israeli cinema, and her older mentor, the real-life figure of Hind Husseini, who rescued children during the war that followed Israel's creation.
It moves among scenes of Palestinian youths hurling rocks at Israeli soldiers, children fleeing violence and whispered conversations between imprisoned women. It crisscrosses between the cities of Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, now mixed Arab-Jewish cities in modern-day Israel. There are scenes in Jerusalem and the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
At Thursday night's screening in Ramallah that kicked off a local film festival, hundreds of Palestinians crammed into the Kasabeh movie burst into applause and laughter during a scene when a shiny-eyed Pinto tells her mentor Husseini that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had signed a peace deal — 17 years later, peace talks have produced few results.
The audience seemed less convinced when, in another scene, Pinto kisses her boyfriend passionately as he explains how much land Palestinians will have in their future state.
The movie views historical events through Palestinian eyes, like the massacre of over 100 residents of the village of Deir Yassin in April 1948 by Jewish militants in the war that followed the establishment of the state of Israel.
In real life, as in the movie, children fleeing Deir Yassin were adopted by Husseini. She created an orphanage for them that eventually became a boarding school, partly for troubled children. It is now a Jerusalem Arab girl's school.
Pinto said in an August interview with the New York Times that she thought the film would make waves. "I knew it was going to be one of those stories that will create a lot of controversy."
Actress al-Massri said the movie could serve as a reminder of why Palestinians and Israelis needed to be pushed to peace.
"This movie is important because it is real," she said. "Everything we are saying, everything you are seeing, every action, every word you see is real. It happened, and its still happening in the everyday life of the Palestinian and Israeli people."