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The Daily Need

Julian Schnabel’s ‘Miral’ spurs controversy at the UN

Director Julian Schnabel arrives for the premiere of "Miral" at United Nations headquarters, on Monday, March 14, 2011. Photo: AP/Jason DeCrow

Julian Schnabel’s “Miral” made its U.S. premiere Monday night at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, despite vocal protestations from the Israeli Delegation to the U.N. and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) leading up to the event.

In a statement issued last Friday, Haim Waxman, Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the U.N., wrote, “We find it very troubling that the U.N. has chosen to feature this film in the GA Hall. We are not aware of any other films with such contentious political content that have received this kind of endorsement from the President of the GA.”

“Miral,” based on the eponymous novel by Rula Jebreal, sets the story of a young Palestinian woman’s coming of age against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And as Steven Zeitchik observed in the L.A. Times last year, this film is significant if only because it is the “most mainstream film project to take a Palestinian point of view on the genesis and modern aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

This is the fourth feature film for the Oscar-nominated painter-cum-cineaste, who won the best director prize at Cannes in 2007 for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” However, unlike his penultimate effort, “Miral” has been met with a mixed response from critics (who screened the film at last year’s Venice and Toronto film festivals), many of whom took issue with the film’s uneven performances and leaden dialogue — even as some commended the director for his “courage” in tackling such a politically charged issue head on.

The pajama-clad Schnabel attended the premiere with Jebreal (who is also the director’s girlfriend), as well as an entourage of celebrity friends including Sean Penn, Willem Defoe (who makes a cameo appearance in the film) and Chuck Close. Following the screening, Schnabel and Jebreal convened a panel discussion, moderated by Dan Rather, which also included the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership president Rabbi Irwin Kula, the (seemingly ubiquitous) journalist Mona Eltahawy and Combatants for Peace co-founder Yonatan Shapira.

The director was emphatic in his embrace of his Jewish heritage and homeland in the follow-up discussion. “I love the state of Israel. I believe in it, and my film is about preserving it, not hurting it,” he said. Of his (absent) critics at the AJC, Schnabel told Monday night’s audience that he encourages them to “come and watch it.”

Spokespersons for the AJC and the Israeli mission to the U.N. were quick to reiterate that neither organization took issue with the general release of “Miral” nor endorsed a wholesale boycott of it per se; rather, both objected to the specific use of the main hall of the General Assembly to screen what they believed was a politically divisive film.

Jean-Victor Nkolo, spokesperson for General Assembly President Joseph Deiss, demurred at the suggestion that the decision to show the film there was a political one, and defended Deiss’s decision to proceed with the premiere by calling Schnabel’s film a “work of art that talks about peace and focuses on the human cost of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.”


It is useful to note that the last movie to be screened at the General Assembly main hall was “Sergio,” a documentary about the U.N. Special Representative Sérgio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in Iraq in 2008. Given the particularly germane connection between a documentary about a lionized (and beloved) U.N. staffer and the General Assembly, one could argue that the use of this highly symbolic space to show a commercial feature film like “Miral” represents quite a departure for General Assembly film curators, and raises some thorny questions about the use of landmarks on international territory to promote commercial interests.

Not surprisingly, the big winner to emerge from this fracas was Harvey Weinstein. Fresh off his Oscar victory (for the thoroughly pleasant but completely unremarkable “King’s Speech”), the hard-charging producer deftly generated some much-needed buzz for Schnabel’s latest effort and will undoubtedly profit from this new controversy.

“Miral” opens in limited release on March 25, 2011.



  • Anonymous

    So sad and disgusting that the current Israeli government, and their supporters, being the majority of Israelis, don’t see Arabs – especially Palestinians – as human beings. Such attitudes will only ruin Israel.

  • R. Burr

    Schnabel’s MIRAL is a work of art. This does not mean that it can’t be judged as a political film with an unmistakable bias. There is nothing politically sophisticated about what the director does. His strength, rather,
    is his ability to produce scenes that have great emotional honesty. The viewer feels assured that he’s getting a specific character’s true feelings, as witnessed in the actor’s total grasp of what is at stake in the evolving story of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that surrounds him/her. When the school girl, Miral, yells back at her school’s headmistress, telling her that she doesn’t understand–these are her (Mrial’s) people; her fight belongs with them–she can’t help the startling effect her outburst has. Her reaction feels so true to who she is, or who she represents.
    The headmistress also achieves almost the same level of honesty, as she explains to Miral that but for the school, she would still be in a refugee camp suffering the unbearable mistreatment she is so recklessly protesting and attempting to bring an end to. This teacher/headmistress, unfortunately, in costume and in tone, reminds one of Ann Bancroft, Helen Keller’s saviour and miracle worker. This should not bother anyone under the age of 40. Nonetheless, it can be seen as a flaw. It would be ludicrous to think that reminder was the director’s intention. Regardless, as a teacher/leader, her words are honest an effective. They bring Miral back to her senses, for which the audience, too, can’t help but feel grateful. Whether or not some of the story’s production, as enacted, seems amateurish or to hastily drawn, must be questioned. It does happen at various points along the way. What’s important though is the overall effect, and Schnabel, on the whole, has come up with a film that is dead serious about its subject and the specific issues it covers. In this sense, it is an unforgettable film that is not impressing the audience with the anguish of the conflict so much as with visual and dialogue sequences that simply ring true, and necessarily become food for much thought.