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[Updated] 'Miral' courts controversy ahead of its U.S. premiere at the United Nations

March 14, 2011 | 11:53 am

Niral
Monday night's U.S. premiere of "Miral," director Julian Schnabel's film tracking a young Palestinian girl's relationship with terrorism and Israel following the 1948 war for Israeli independence, has encountered a wave of controversy, with the American Jewish Committee calling on the U.N. General Assembly president to cancel its screening at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The American Jewish Committee believes the film portrays Israel negatively. In a letter to the world body, AJC Executive Director David Harris said showing the film in the U.N. General Assembly hall "will only serve to reinforce the already widespread view that Israel simply cannot expect fair treatment in the U.N." 

Schnabel, an American Jew, along with the film's Jewish-American distributor, Harvey Weinstein, are rejecting the charges of bias and have invited AJC representatives to Monday's premiere.  "We are surprised and saddened that the American Jewish Committee would prejudge 'Miral' and move to block the showing of the film," said the movie's producer Jon Kilik. "We made this film in order to encourage the very dialogue that the AJC seems to want to prevent. We hope the AJC will come to the premiere instead of trying to cancel it."

Schnabel, who shot the movie in Jerusalem and the West Bank, added, "I love the state of Israel. I believe in it, and my film is about preserving it, not hurting it. Understanding is part of the Jewish way, and Jewish people are supposed to be good listeners. But if we don't listen to the other side, we can never have peace."

"Miral" is based on the autobiographical novel of Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal and stars "Slumdog Millionaire" actress Freida Pinto. The film centers on Miral, who grew up, like Jebreal, in an orphanage in East Jerusalem that was founded by a wealthy Palestinian woman. The film traces the two women's lives from the beginnings of the orphanage to the Oslo peace accords in 1993. The film played at the Venice and Toronto film festivals last year.

According to AJC spokesman Kenneth Bandler, no one from the AJC will attend the U.N. premiere, which they believe is the first film to be screened in the main hall of the general assembly. (The documentary "Sergio," about former U.N. special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in Iraq, screened at the headquarters several years ago.)

[Update: AJC's representative in Italy, Lisa Palmieri-Billig, saw "Miral" in Venice last September and reviewed it here for the Jerusalem Post.

Jean-Victor Nkolo, spokesman for the president of the General Assembly, confirmed that Joseph Deiss, the president of the General Assembly, saw the film a few months ago during a private screening. "He liked it and thought it could contribute to a useful and interesting discussion on a topic that has gone on for so long," Nkolo said. He said that hosting a premiere at the United Nations was not such an unusual occurrence, though he was unable to name another film that had premiered at the headquarters. "We see screenings here as a venue," he added. "The film has to defend itself. It's a work of art."

Following the screening Monday night, Dan Rather is to moderate a panel discussion featuring Schnabel, Jebreal, journalist Mona Eltahawy and Yonatan Shapira, co-founder of Combatants for Peace and a former captain in the Israeli Air Force Reserves, who in 2003 organized a group of pilots who refused to fly attack missions on Palestinian territories. Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, will also be part of the conversation.]

"Miral" will bow in U.S. theaters on March 25. The ratings board of the Motion Picture Assn. of America  granted it a PG-13 rating last week on appeal over its initial R rating for violent content, including the depiction of sexual assault.

— Nicole Sperling

Photo: Freida Pinto and Omar Metwally in Julian Schnabel's 'Miral.' Credit: Jose Haro/the Weinstein Co.

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