During the making of "Miral," a coming-of-age tale about a 16-year-old 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 Rula Jebreal, as pro-Palestinian propaganda. Others questioned the casting of Indian-born actress Freida Pinto of "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."
Schnabel trimmed "Miral," and distributor Weinstein Co. delayed the film from a December to March release, moving it out of this year's awards race. The biggest backlash came this month when Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, condemned the film's premiere in the United Nations General Assembly chamber.
"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?"
The Weinstein Co. has been promoting "Miral," which opened 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 e-mail 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 a 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.
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.