During the making of "Miral," a coming-of-age tale about a teenaged Palestinian girl, a profound moment occurred for director Julian Schnabel as he was filming in a convent outside of Jerusalem. Sirens sounded and everyone on set — men, women, Palestinians, Israelis and otherwise — suddenly stopped for several minutes of silence.
"There was a pool of humanity at that moment that was in sync," recalled Schnabel. "It was powerful."
He didn't know it at the time, but Schnabel was experiencing an Israeli tradition that's part of Yom HaShoah, a memorial day in remembrance of the millions of Jews killed during the Holocaust. While everyone on set remained mum for that moment of silence, other folks have been anything but quiet about his film in the months leading up to its release.
After the movie was screened at the Venice Film Festival last year, some critics dubbed "Miral," which is based on the semi-autobiographical novel about four Palestinian women by journalist — and Schnabel's girlfriend — Rula Jebreal, as pro-Palestinian propaganda. Others questioned the casting of Indian-born actress Freida Pintoof "Slumdog Millionaire" fame in the title role.
"The story remains a muddle of melodramatic gestures, extraneous protagonists and blunt political talking points," Variety critic Justin Chang wrote after seeing the film at the festival. "Schnabel's attempts to compensate stylistically with his trademark smeary impressionistic visuals feel like auteurist doodles in the margins of an important subject."
Unlike most films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "Miral" only focuses on Palestinians' stories. The film begins in 1948 after the United Nations instituted the two-state system and chronicles the opening of the Dar Al-Tifel Institute in East Jerusalem, an orphanage for Palestinian children founded by Hind Husseini (played by Hiam Abbass).
"Miral" also touches on the backgrounds of would-be terrorist Fatima (Ruba Blal) and Miral's mother, Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), whose suicide compels Miral's father (Alexander Siddig) to leave her at the school. The film then fast-forwards to 1988 as Hind sends the teenaged Miral (Pinto) outside the orphanage's walls to teach at refugee camps.
After the film was screened, Schnabel trimmed "Miral," and distributor Weinstein Co. delayed it from a December to March release, moving it out of this year's awards race. The biggest backlash came this month when Jewish groups, like the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, condemned the film's premiere at the United Nations General Assembly.
"On one hand, it's a pity, but on the other hand, it's very good for the film," said Schnabel. "It's too bad that somebody was stupid enough to say it shouldn't be shown when they haven't seen it. How do you say something shouldn't be shown without actually looking at it first? If you want to pick on something, at least know what you're picking on."
The Weinstein Co. has been promoting "Miral," which opens in limited release Friday, with a graphical print and online advertisement featuring a striking red-and-black image of Pinto, which Schnabel said he shot himself, accented with a barbed-wire Star of David surrounding her eye and a bold tagline declaring it's "the movie they tried to stop."
"I know a good line when I hear it," Harvey Weinstein said in an email when asked about the ad. "Seriously, though, it is true that attempts were made to halt the premiere at the U.N., and I did find that sad and troubling. Our ultimate goal is to get people to see 'Miral,' a movie we love and believe in, and one we think can promote valuable dialogue."
The Weinstein Co. has a long history of courting controversy with their films. The distributor battled the Motion Picture Association of America over the strict ratings of such movies as "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," ''Blue Valentine" and "The King's Speech." Earlier this month, the ratings board switched the rating of "Miral" from R to PG-13.
Embracing — or even manufacturing — controversies to promote entertainment properties has become a more blatant marketing practice in recent years. After reports surfaced last year that some moviegoers fainted during the amputation scene in "127 Hours," Fox Searchlight launched IKeptMyEyesOpenFor127Hours.com and handed out T-shirts with the slogan.
Electronic Arts promoted the violent video game "Dead Space 2" earlier this year with the website YourMomHatesThis.com and commercials starring creeped-out mothers watching footage of the sci-fi sequel during focus tests. The saucy CW series "Gossip Girl" infamously played up negative review blurbs in a 2008 campaign. "Mind-blowingly inappropriate," boasted one ad.
The hoopla surrounding "Miral" isn't just a matter of sex or gore though. It's political. Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was most miffed about the film's premiere venue, not the film's content, which he has not yet seen. Hier said he wouldn't have taken issue if "Miral" debuted at "Radio City Music Hall or any other distinguished theater."
"I may have a different opinion about the facts in that film, but I'm not boycotting the right of the Palestinian point of view from being presented in the United States," said Hier. "My only issue was with the film being played at the United Nations. I just think they're trying to make money with that marketing. Who is this 'they' they're talking about?"
Schnabel, the Jewish-American painter-turned-director of such films as the Cuban saga "Before Night Falls" and French drama "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," said he isn't surprised by the uproar and insisted "all that controversy is good." His hope is that "Miral" can in some way help to inspire peace at a time of change in the Middle East.
"Let everybody argue with each other if that's what they want to do," said Schnabel. "I made an object, a vessel, whatever it is, and you can take that information and do whatever you want with it. I know what I think. It's in the movie. I think it's about caring about people. It's about looking at people and realizing they're not all the same."