Miral Defies Racial Stereotypes of Arabs in the Media
Over the weekend, I saw the new film Miral by director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). I’ll start off by saying that overall, it was well done. What was perhaps most noteworthy about the film is that it told a story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the point of view of a Palestinian girl coming of age, a voice we rarely hear. And to top it off, the film is based on a semi-autobiographical book, Miral: A Novel, by author-screenwriter Rula Jebreal, Schnabel's girlfriend.
In reality, Miral is the story of four women: Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), who opens an orphanage and girls’ school for 55 displaced and wandering Palestinian children in Jerusalem in the midst of the Arab-Israeli War; Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), a woman who faces alcoholism, abuse and imprisonment after punching a Jewish woman on a bus for insulting her; Fatima (Ruba Blal), a former nurse who received three life sentences after attempting but failing to explode a bomb in a movie theater, and Miral (Freida Pinto), Nadia’s daughter. Miral is torn between her conservative and peaceful father Jamal (Alexander Siddig), and her love interest Hani (Omar Metwally), a PLO activist.
Unlike most U.S. media portrayals of Arab people, this film presents Palestinians as everyday human beings, in all their complexities. For example, the children in the film demonstrated the full range of Palestinian physical diversity, from fair-haired blond to Mediterranean olive to black African. Palestinians and Israelis are known to fall in love with each other and become couples. And sometimes people and their actions are not so cut-and-dried. It is easy to label someone a terrorist, and terrorist acts were committed in Miral. At the same time, such labels become blurred, as they are subject to nuance within the context of a military occupation. For example, it was easy for the main character to teeter on the edge between schoolgirl and terrorist. Those who are oppressed and displaced under occupation view their struggle as one for liberation and self-determination. Some may seek peace and reconciliation - and land - in furtherance of their struggle. Others who view the occupier as a military adversary who stole their land may find their answer through the barrel of a gun and act accordingly. That is not to justify violence; it is simply to provide the context for understanding what human beings do when their backs are against the wall.
Through its depiction of the Israeli occupation, Miral provides a public service to viewers who are unexposed to it, unaffected and unaware. The daily regimen of humiliating checkpoints, soldiers demanding to see identification, and hostile religious settlers, backed by troops, are a reality for Palestinians.
Critics have blasted the film as being one-sided, as if that is a bad thing. One heavy-handed critic even called Miral a “slanderous and shameful piece of propaganda.” Everyone has a point of view. And people deserve the space to tell their own stories from their own point of view. Each day, media interpret the experiences of groups of people through distorted cultural lenses, without the input or consent of their subjects. Stereotypes result.
When they are not depicted as the hired help, African-Americans and Latinos, not unlike Arabs, are stereotyped as terrorists - urban terrorists and gangbangers who are a danger to society. Additionally, blacks are depicted as welfare queens, and Latinos are cast in the role of “illegal aliens” who cross the border from Mexico to steal good paying jobs picking oranges and busing tables. Asians become the model minority, or human computers, with Asian women stereotyped as the submissive China doll or hyper-sexualized Dragon Lady.
And rightwing media in the U.S. reduce Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans to shadowy figures, the “other” who would infiltrate society and defile Christian values with their mosques, not to mention blow up our cities. Did I mention that the President might be one of them?
“The press is so powerful in its image-making role; it can make a criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal. This is the press, an irresponsible press,” as Malcolm X once said. “If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
America needs exposure to more media images of Arabs and others that are self-depictions, and yes, one-sided representations of their reality. How do we start a dialogue and transform ourselves and our condition when we constantly hear only one side of the story?
I highly recommend Miral, but that is not to say the movie is perfect. For instance, casting Indian actress Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire fame in the role of Miral was at times a mismatch. Moreover, surely an Arab actress was available. Further, the viewer is left wanting to know more, more about what happened to Miral. And although they are capable artists, Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoe seem to serve no substantial role other than the perfunctory Westerners in a film about people of color.
Given the paucity of positive images of Arabs out there, no single film can be all things to all people. And no film by itself can articulate the full breadth of the occupation or the Mideast conflict. But this is a good start.