A Q&A With Rachid Benzine

Rachid Benzine: In your film Miral, all forms of violence, real or symbolic, are either acted out by Israelis or by Palestinians. But when they're shown as individual acts, the Palestinians are the sole victims. Why didn't you mention the individual acts of Palestinian violence against the Israelis?

Julian Schnabel: Miral never intended to give an exhaustive, historic view on the Isaraeli-Palestinian conflict. To wish for anyone to embrace the whole scope of a historical or social reality is as noble as it is unrealistic. We can be truthful in our endeavors, search for objectivity, keep a critical eye; but if we forget we always are -- despite our best intentions -- in a subjective space, we are lying to ourselves and to others. There's always an important dose of subjectivity when a filmmaker, like any scientist, political leader or journalist, formulates his questions on a problem that challenges him, or moves him. Through this film, I wanted to show a small part of the conflict. What matters is not so much the pursuit of exactitude, but the description of little moments of truth.

RB: Had your companion been Israeli, would you have made a film about the Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks?

JS: Maybe. It would be a lie to say we're not prisoners of our own subjectivity. We're always influenced by life, desires, anxieties or the experience of the ones you love. That's what makes us human. Had my companion been born in Rwanda, I might have made a film on that conflict. And whether she was a Hutu or a Tutsi, in both cases, I would have done a sincere, honest film, but each would be different. Being sensitive to human suffering is being rich.

I respect and have compassion for all those who suffer, there's no such thing as good or bad victims. A young man or woman who dies, Jewish or Palestinian, will always be a tragedy in itself. What my film shows happens in other parts of the world, unfortunately. Miral could be a Tibetan, a Chechen, a Kurd, a Tutsi or a Hutu.

RB: In your film, most Palestinians are good people shown as victims. How do you justify this biased viewpoint that denies some of today's reality?

JS: This film is not a treatise in political history, nor a polemic. It is a poem. It offers images and fragments of a complex reality which we cannot grasp entirely. I was shattered as I read Rula Jebreal's book, Miral, and I wanted to do my job as a filmmaker and translate it into images. Obviously, the story of Miral is a segment of the history of the world, a visual echo of what is happening in that part of the world. My only intention was to highlight the tragic story of a woman swirled into the spiral of human violence when all she wanted was to love and be loved.

This film is intended to make you see, feel, understand what a conflict lived by different generations of women can be like. And to show how education and culture are the keys to human development, in terms of individual or collective growth.

RB: Your film doesn't directly address the political dimension, yet, when it does at specific times, it systematically denounces the Israelis. Taking side with the Palestinians, without nuances, is that what you consider not making a political film?

JS: My film takes side with all human beings. When you tell someone's story, you have to take into account all the historical, political, social and religious realities that have made her into who she is. Miral is a Palestinian woman, she suffers as the Israeli military presence shatters both her existence and that of her people. I could not erase that reality once I had decided to tell her story.

RB: Despite many Israeli Jews supporting the Palestinian cause since 1948, not even once do you introduce such an Israeli character in your film. You replaced that figure, choosing an American soldier instead. Why?

JS: True. It is the honor of the Israeli society that, for over 60 years, there have been Jews sensitive to the Palestinian suffering, proving it through many acts of solidarity and fraternity. I believe there is no other conflict, worldwide, where so many voices from one party are fighting loud and clear to make the adverse party's cause be heard.

There are two questions within your question, really. Why not show a positive Israeli character? And why show a positive American character? In both cases, the answers lie in Rula's reality. The film reflects the content of her book, embraces her subjectivity as well as her day-to-day reality. This doesn't take away the fact that Israelis played and are still playing a major role in the fight for Palestinians rights. My Israeli friends fully understood what I meant: praising a Palestinian woman doesn't take away any nobility from the Israeli figures who lived or are still among us. As for the American soldier, he appears because he truly existed in Hind's reality. He represents another form of subjectivity present in this conflict. Miral attempts to show the humanity of the conflict, as lived from within by the protagonists, and not the detached viewpoint we too often have as outsiders. Whenever some characters are treated vaguely, coarsely or without nuances, that is the way our protagonists perceive them at that time in their life.

RB: You totally wipe out the highly negative influence of political Islamism on the Palestinians. On the contrary, the image of Islam is even enhanced through Jamal's character. Why this religious stand? Isn't it like slamming the door on the Israeli and Palestinian democrats who are the only possible source for a solution out of this conflict?

JS: Again, I do not pretend I said all there was to say about the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian drama. All extremists, whoever they are, repulse me. By showing on screen independent and proud Palestinian women, I don't think I'm playing into the game of Islamic ideologists who, I believe, have a different view on a woman's role.

One must not confuse religious and spiritual approaches to Islamism. I have the utmost respect for believers, whatever their religion, and the same utmost respect for the views shared by agnostics or atheists. I believe it is by showing the beauty and the nobility of the religious faith that one can, all the more easily, condemn the perverted use of faith for personal political or commercial profits.

RB: Your hopes on education are high. Yet, two students -- symbolizing Hind's teaching -- die. One, physically, killed in a demonstration for a cause she was passionate about; the other, symbolically, in her leaving her country. Isn't it a way of saying that education is pointless, leading to a dead-end? And by way of consequence, somehow justifying violence for those living in Palestine?

JS: It is fear and ignorance which are, worldwide, the main breeding-grounds for violence. Fundamentally, the film highlights education as a work in progress. If this film exists, if Rula could write her story, it is because she had access to education, which teaches you to listen to the many ways the world expresses itself.

RB: In your film, all Palestinians, no matter who they are, are sucked into a spiral leaving them but two options: death or flight. As the Algerians phrased it to the Pieds-Noirs in 1962, are the "suitcase or the coffin" the only prospects for the Palestinians?

JS: The comparison to the Europeans who had to leave Algeria doesn't seem appropriate to me. The Palestinains are no Pieds-Noirs, and the Israelis are no Algerians. You cannot compare these situations. I understand the feeling, but Hind stands for quite the opposite. Granted, she sacrificed her love life, but her journey shows what the future could be for Palestinians. Palestinians who, despite harsh living conditions, have a high level of education compared to other Arab nations in the area.

RB: You acknowledged how little you knew about the Palestinians before reading Rula Jebreal's book and bringing it to the screen. This very subjective book is fully captured by your camera. Don't you find Rula Jebreal's book, written from her own perspective, to be the worst starting point to depict the reality of it all?

JS: Each human story is unique and deserves our attention. That's how I felt about Miral's story. The world is a sum of these unique lives. What's more, a filmmaker is not a historian or a sociologist. He is a creator. He takes a little of the world reality, and transcends it. Rula's book is a rare testimony, strong with humanity and truth. Objectively strong, too.

RB: You use archival footage to illustrate the defining political and strategic moments of the conflict. Here again, the Israelis are the bad guys. Is it your way of saying that History, as objectified by archival footage, corroborates your standpoint?

JS: Once again, it's all in the eyes of these three women. The story I'm showing is how these women experienced history. This archival footage is a testimony to History, seen from their perspectives as women.

RB: Your film is clearly anti-Zionist. Does it reflect your personal conviction, or commitment, to a cause?

JS: This is not a militant film as it doesn't propagate for any cause, or promote any ideology. On the other hand, it is a humanist film that shows my respect for human beings, whoever, wherever, they are.

What is anti-Zionist supposed to mean? That I want the destruction of the state of Israel? This is one of the dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy: the minute you show some empathy for the Palestinian population, you're accused of wanting the destruction of the Jews, I am Jewish, and proud to be Jewish. But I am hurt in my pride by too many injustices done because we have forgotten Palestinians are human beings.

RB: When you've got nothing to lose, and someone offers you education as an option instead of encouraging military action -- or political action at least -- isn't that negating reality?

JS: Did you wish my film called for more violence? Do you regret I didn't make a film encouraging war? The only way I feel for the Palestinians to survive this tragedy is to pursue cultivating their rich spiritual, cultural and intellectual heritage. That's how they will better understand that their history is not as different from the Jews' as they might think. Many Palestinians are probably the descendants of the Jews of ancient times.

If that were the case, this conflict would have ended decades ago. Education can partly pave the way to a culture of peace. To live in peace, you have to make peace. Which in no way prevents some people from thinking that to live in peace, you have to be ready for war. In the end, contemporary History teaches us that it is rarely warriors or extremists who sign peace treaties, but politicians whose education gave them a good sense of diplomacy and taught them the art of compromise.

RB: Isn't advocating education to the Palestinians ignoring the fact that that they are among the most educated of the Arab people? And forgetting that the same could be said about the Israelis: shouldn't values such as the respect for others, pacifism and anti-colonialism nourish their own educational system?

JS: True enough, I advocate a specific, yet universal, type of education and culture: a humanist culture. Those who in Palestine and Israel are today's mediators, advocating a better knowledge of the other and mutual respect, and who -- believers or atheists -- concretely contribute to peace one day, are nourished by such humanist culture. There are men and women, both in Palestine and in Israel, with a strong love for culture and peace, as there exist men and women who spread nothing but fanaticism and hatred. I sincerely believe that education helps us transcend the limits of our first impressions, open up to the other and embrace the many possibilities diversity offers.

RB: What did working on this film bring into your life?

JS: You don't come out unscathed taking such a dive into violence and suffering. I hope I am more human now, I mean more empathetic with those who suffer, whoever they are.

RB: What changed, through this film, in your view, take on the conflict?

JS: I didn't know much about this conflict. I know about it a little better now. But I still have a lot to learn from all sides.

RB: What role can education play in solving this conflict?

JS: It's only because you don't know the other that you fear and hate him. Wars would no longer exist if people learned how to put themselves in the place of those they fear. At least sometimes. To be willing to discover and meet the other is to take the risk to love him.

RB: If there's no education without the learning of values, which ones do you advocate for the Palestinians? And, even though it is not the subject of your film, for the Israelis?

JS: Paramount is to know that, before they become different, all human beings have one thing in common: they belong to the same human species. Mothers, whether Jewish or Palestinian, are first to love their children, before they become individuals because of their culture, history, language or religion...

RB: Why choose this subject matter today? Could you have made this film a few years ago?

JS: In a creator's life, some artistic choices present themselves with a sudden urgency. I probably wasn't ready for such a film, a few years back. And above all, I hadn't met Rula yet, nor Miral, her book.

RB: Your work is social, political. Who do you think is your audience?

JS: My work is the work of a creator first. It is for the audience to decide whether it is social, political, aesthetic, true, biased... I hope to meet a large audience, and not only an audience of either experts on Middle East politics, or activists.

RB: Why is rape the ultimate metaphor for the evil caused to the Palestinians?

JS: Rape is probably the strongest expression of the negation of a human's being's dignity. It is his integrity which is destroyed.

RB: You are of Jewish descent. Was it important to you to turn a critical eye to Israel as a state, and its relationships to humanist values or to those which prevailed at its creation?

JS: I am not of Jewish descent , I am Jewish. Everything with regard to the Jewish people affects me. It is my love for my people that makes me wonder about its present and its future. If I had no interest in the fate of Israel, I wouldn't have made this film.

RB: Is showing the Palestinians' plight a way to address Israel, with questions about its own future?

JS: Israeli and Palestinians have no future but finding together the paths to peace. They will live together, or die together.

RB: All your characters show a spirit of self-denial and sacrifice. Do you believe this human conflict can only be solved/overcome by self-sacrifice?

JS: Nothing new can be gained without sacrificing a part of oneself. Without sacrifice, there's nothing but the status-quo. Choosing love (that is, choosing peace) is always partly giving up a little (sometimes a lot) of oneself.

RB: Why show the presence of, and the role played by, the Westerners in the conflict through a love story between Hind and a soldier, played by Willem Dafoe? It's an approach I find difficult to understand. What's the meaning of it?

JS: The Israeli-Palestinian tragedy is not only a Middle East tragedy but a tragedy of international scope. The Western countries have their responsibility both in the creation of the state of Israel and in the many evolutions of the conflict. Furthermore, the West is part of Israel's history. Many Israelis are the sons and daughters of Westerners. And the biblical references to Israel are part of the history and the culture of the West. Here, the West and the East inextricably mingle.

RB: You're obviously reaching out to various audiences. For the wider audience, your film will mostly be the story of a few characters. A beautiful story with all the right ingredients: drama, love, even an aesthetic approach to pain. But those well informed about the conflict will be frustrated by its political dimension. Why not tackle more directly, through the three protagonists' journey, the political stakes?

JS: Haven't I answered that question already? The history of mankind is built around the story of individuals.

Rachid Benzine is a Muslim intellectual. He is currently writing a Quran for children.