A movie being released this week is running into a firestorm for its scrutiny of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.
The film is "Miral," and it is based on the autobiographical novel of a Palestinian journalist, Rula Jebreal. It depicts the first Palestinian Intifada from the perspective of a teenage girl, portrayed by "Slumdog Millionaire" heroine, Freida Pinto. The director, Oscar-nominated Julian Schnabel ("Before Night Falls,"), and the U.S. distributor of the film, Harvey Weinstein, are both Jewish-Americans.
"Last week the New York premiere of 'Miral' attracted a fusillade of criticism from American Jewish groups that consider it anti-Israeli," the New York Times reports. In fact, the American Jewish Congress unsuccessfully lobbied the U.N. General Assembly to cancel a showing of the movie at the body's headquarters.
"The film has a clear political message, which portrays Israel in a highly negative light," AJC's Executive Director David Harris wrote in a letter to General Assembly President Joseph Deiss. "Permit me to ask why the president of the General Assembly would wish to associate himself -- and the prestige of his office -- with such a blatantly one-sided event."
The controversy has forced the moviemakers on the defensive.
"I love the State of Israel," Schnabel, who filmed "Miral" in Jerusalem, replied. "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."
"If they see the movie," Weinstein, the normally pugnacious co-founder of Miramax, said, "they'll see something that's a pathway to peace and a beautiful coming-of-age story."
"Miral" is only the latest example of how movies that are sympathetic toward Palestinians are received in this country. "Hanna K," made by internationally acclaimed director Costa-Gavras ("Z," "Missing") in 1983, was perhaps the first film to humanize the Palestinians. (Check out a profile of Mohammad Bakri, who played a main character in the movie, in the upcoming May issue of The Progressive.) It suffered the ignominious fate of being pulled from theaters almost immediately after release. Universal reportedly prohibited the director from even using the advertisements that had been made to promote the film.
"Miral" and "Hanna K" are among the few movies to sympathetically portray Palestinians. Generally, movie after movie depict Palestinians and Arabs in a really negative way, as Jack Shaheen catalogs in his book "Reel Bad Arabs."
"Other groups are stereotyped, but there they also benefit from contrasting images," Shaheen recently told the New York Times. "I tell my Italian friends, for example, that I'd like to walk in their sandals. Yes, there is the Mafia thing. But there are also movies in which they are portrayed as funny, warmhearted and kind people. In the case of Arabs and Muslims, it's Johnny-one-note, a continuous bombardment of negative images over and over, with nothing to balance that."
The New York Times article points out that images of Arabs are most often lacking in Hollywood (even in movies set in the Middle East), unlike European and Israeli movies, which regularly have complex portrayals of Arab people.
That's why a movie like "Miral" should be welcomed, instead of being condemned.
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