Schnabel's true romance inspires tale of love across cultural divide

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The real-life romance behind the film could not have better advertised its subject matter: a Jewish American film director and son of a Zionist mother meets a Palestinian woman at an art exhibition, falls in love, reads about her traumatic childhood under Israeli occupation and brings her moving story to the screen.

It was clear as Julian Schnabel premiered his latest film, Miral, at the Venice Film Festival yesterday that deeply personal forces had led to its making.

His girlfriend, the Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, had written the screenplay (based on her 2004 autobiographical novel), and his daughter, Stella Schnabel, starred as an Israeli girl that befriends the Palestinian protagonist. Schnabel and Jebreal's cross-cultural union gave the film's implicit hope for peace in the Middle East an added emotional dimension.

Schnabel – who was an influential visual artist before turning to film – met Jebreal in 2007 at an exhibition in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome.

Seated alongside her yesterday, Schnabel conceded that before he met her, he had "receded" from the Israel-Palestine conflict and perhaps even his Jewish identity. "Maybe I spent most of my life receding from going to Israel, or my responsibility as a Jewish person ... maybe this [retreat] was my way of protecting something my mother [a member of Hadassah, a Zionist organisation in America] spent her whole life trying to build."

Jebreal said when they first started speaking about issues behind the occupied territories "I understood that Julian had little knowledge about the conflict, about who the Palestinians are or even why there is a conflict."

The film dramatises the stories of three generations of women living in Jerusalem during the first intifada in 1948 until the Oslo accords in 1994.

It begins as the Palestinian philanthropist Hind Husseini finds 55 orphans left destitute and traumatised by war in 1948, who become the first generation of thousands of girls she takes in to be educated at her school, Dar El-Tifl.

The tale of the passionate teenager, Miral, caught between violent struggle and Husseini's non-violent teachings is the thinly veiled story of Jebreal's early life. It stars the Indian actress Freida Pinto, who starred in Slumdog Millionaire, and includes Willem Dafoe and Vanessa Redgrave in its cast.

Schnabel enlisted Jebreal as a screenwriter and she also accompanied him on set to the occupied territories, becoming a de facto "assistant director" of sorts, he added.

"I couldn't have made it without her. It would have been impossible. We shot the film in Jerusalem and Palestine – in Jaffa, Ramallah, Haifa and many other places – including places where Rula had lived. Doors opened up as a result," he said.

The film's underlying message – for a peace agreement to be reached and honoured – might not lead intransigent politicians to alter their outlook on the conflict, but the film's producer, Tarak Ben Ammar, said he hoped that the public at least would be touched by it.

He called Schnabel part of a Jewish "silent majority" who greatly sympathised with the Palestinian predicament. Schnabel, he added, had received a letter by a "lover of Israel" who had thanked him for his portrayal of Arab suffering, and highlighted the idea that "justice for Jews [does not mean] injustice for Arabs."

The film has already been sold in the Middle East and Schnabel said he had every hope of selling it in Israel.

This is his fourth film. He turned to filmmaking in 1996 after a long and fruitful career as an artist, exhibiting work at the Tate in London, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Whitney Museum in New York.

His film Before Night Falls won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2000 and earned its star, Javier Bardem, an Oscar nomination. In 2007, Schnabel was named "best director" at the Cannes Film Festival and awarded a Golden Globe for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

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