Israeli-Palestinian politics often prove polarizing at the United Nations, but rarely does the furor involve Hollywood celebrities and power brokers, a red carpet and a film screening at the world body's own headquarters in New York.
Such was the case Monday night when the U.N. played host to the U.S. premiere of director Julian Schnabel's new film "Miral," which follows a Palestinian girl's relationship with terrorism and Israel after the 1948 war for Israeli independence. The screening was met with protests from Israel's delegation to the U.N. as well as prominent U.S.-based Jewish groups including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, which were outraged that the world body would open its doors to a film that even its Jewish American distributor, Harvey Weinstein, describes as "pro-Palestinian."
In a letter to the world body, AJC Executive Director David Harris said showing the film in the U.N. General Assembly hall would "only serve to reinforce the already widespread view that Israel simply cannot expect fair treatment in the U.N." In particular, Jewish groups have objected to the film's portrayal of the Israeli army and what they say is a lack of context for some of the soldiers' more extreme actions.
Despite such objections, the unusual event went off as planned, with the gregarious Schnabel walking the carpet in his trademark pajamas paired with a blazer, trench coat and bright red sneakers. His girlfriend, the author and screenwriter Rula Jebreal, whose life story inspired the film, went more formal in an elegant black dress. The duo greeted famous friends such as Josh Brolin, Sean Penn and Robert De Niro, who came out to support the filmmaker whose last movie, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," was nominated for four Academy Awards.
Schnabel, an American Jew who shot the movie in Jerusalem and the West Bank, rejected the charges of bias but was clear about his interest in showing the Palestinian side of the conflict.
"I love the state of Israel. I believe in it, and my film is about preserving it, not hurting it," he said. "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" played at last year's Venice and Toronto film festivals, and Schnabel arranged a private viewing of the movie for U.N. General Assembly President Joseph Deiss a few months ago, hopeful that the Swiss politician would agree to host a screening and discussion of the film at the world body.
"They've been involved with the birth of the state of Israel and have been trying to solve this conflict for so many years that it seemed like the perfect platform," Schnabel said Monday. "I wanted to find people who would have their hearts open to this, who could exchange ideas in an open forum. When you hear the language and the ideas of this movie in the context of this place, it's very, very resonant."
The film stars "Slumdog Millionaire" actress Freida Pinto as Miral, a young woman who, like Jebreal, was raised in an orphanage in East Jerusalem founded by a Palestinian woman, Hind Husseini. The film traces the two women's lives from the beginnings of the orphanage to the Oslo peace accords in 1993.
According to AJC spokesman Kenneth Bandler, no one from his organization attended the U.N. premiere, which they believe marked the first instance of a film being screened in the main hall of the General Assembly. (The documentary "Sergio," about U.N. special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in Iraq, was shown at the headquarters in 2008.)
Contrary to assertions by the Weinstein Co. that representatives of the Jewish organizations protesting the event hadn't yet viewed the film, the AJC's Italian representative, Lisa Palmieri-Billig, saw it in Venice in September. She wrote a scathing review in the Jerusalem Post, saying the film portrayed Israel as the "unequivocal villain."
Jean-Victor Nkolo, spokesman for the president of the General Assembly, confirmed that Deiss saw the film and responded positively to it. "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.
Nkolo said it was not that unusual to host a movie premiere at the United Nations, though he was unable to name another film that had debuted at the headquarters recently. "We see screenings here as a venue," he added. "The film has to defend itself. It's a work of art."
After Monday's screening, broadcast journalist Dan Rather moderated 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, was also part of the conversation.
Rather flew in to New York for the event. "I thought the film was really powerful," he said. "As I understand it, the goal of the filmmakers was to create understanding, education, love and peace and this film is trying to move that conversation forward."
The Weinstein Co. will open "Miral" in a limited number of theaters on March 25. Just last week, the company won an appeal of the film's initial R rating for violent content, including the depiction of sexual assault. It will now carry a PG-13 rating.
Weinstein, an American Jew like Schnabel, acknowledged the film favors Palestine. "This is a pro-Palestinian story," he said Monday. "It's an activist story."
But Weinstein, whose company is coming off a high after its film "The King's Speech" won the best picture Oscar last month, has more to contend with than the ire of Jewish organizations. He said his mother, a member of the Zionist women's group Hadassah, was not happy with his involvement with the film.
"My mother's Hadassah, so she's putting me up for adoption," he said. "She said two weeks ago, you won the Oscar. Good. Now you're involved with this movie? Bad. I just hope I can find someone to take you. She's not kidding."