- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” filmmaker Julian Schnabel said his controversial new feature “Miral” “actually shows Palestinians how we wish they would be: peaceful.”

Dear reader, I think Mr. Schnabel has stumbled upon a ritual that could prove even more transcendentally beneficial than yoga meditation.

Wouldn’t it be heartening to see a movie that limns a democratic post-Tiananmen China? Or 19th-century American whites coexisting peacefully and prosperously with both Indians and free blacks? Or Boston Red Sox fans embracing those of the New York Yankees? And savor that “actually”: Mr. Schnabel seems to think that what he more or less admits is wishful thinking is an act of courage.

He dares to hope! We’d better stick with yoga.

Because Mr. Schnabel’s filmic prescription seems little better than a “Visualize World Peace” bumper sticker.

Before dismissing what follows as some hawkish-militaristic-neocon-Likudnik screed, hear these disclaimers: Mr. Schnabel’s last feature film, Oscar-nominated “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” was a visual masterpiece. Further, filmmakers have neither an ethical nor artistic responsibility to include point-counterpoint “balance” in any story they wish to tell. And widening one’s “circle of compassion” is indeed a useful exercise of moral imagination.

Mr. Schnabel’s belief that his latest film is an attempt to renew a peaceful dialogue is apparently sincere. He told London’s Guardian newspaper last October: “If Arab people see a Jewish person can do this, they might think, ‘Maybe there’s somebody on the other side we can talk to.’” However: Mr. Schnabel’s self-pitying campaign of false martyrdom in the wake of nearly universally negative reviews of “Miral” is still an utter sham.

For the uninitiated, “Miral,” based on a heavily autobiographical work of fiction by Mr. Schnabel’s current girlfriend, Rula Jebreal, looks at Israeli treatment of Palestinians through the eyes of, well, Palestinians.

In the interest of full disclosure, this columnist is among the uninitiated: I haven’t seen the movie. Obviously, I can have no beef — yet — with its “one-sidedness,” a feeling that has registered with organizations like the American Jewish Committee, or with its supposed aesthetic failures. (A.O. Scott of the New York Times, for instance, saluted “Miral” for its good intentions and “humanism,” but nonetheless found it “strained,” “superficial” and comparable at times to an “epic perfume commercial.”)

I can only wince at what I have actually seen: namely, Mr. Schnabel’s fatheaded preening across the pages of newspapers and on shows like Mr. Maher’s “Real Time.” In this newspaper, Mr. Schnabel hinted, all too familiarly, at a vast conspiracy of Zionism in the upper echelons of the international media: Critics who’ve liked “Miral” privately have feared saying so publicly because they “don’t want to get fired from their jobs,” he told this paper. And if they’re not feeling pressured from above, unfriendly critics must be harboring “subliminal” biases that prevent them from liking a sympathetic portrayal of Palestinians.

Mr. Schnabel is himself Jewish, and so enjoys insulation from the charge of anti-Semitism.

But that doesn’t mitigate the ugliness — the sheer preposterousness — of his suspicions.

No less a paragon of mainstream liberal Hollywood and tolerant J Street Jewishness than Steven Spielberg was responsible for the film “Munich” (2005), which posited, in democratic, internationally recognized Israel’s conflict with Palestinian terrorists dedicated to its destruction, a neatly symmetrical, morally equivalent cycle of violence that midwifed the Sept. 11 attacks.

And Israel’s native film industry itself has exported a number of vehicles of national self-reflection (usually obliquely, as in 2002’s “Broken Wings” and in 2004’s “Walk on Water,” but sometimes head-on, as in 2008’s “Lemon Tree”).

Perhaps owing to his comprehensive distaste for all religion, even the left-leaning Mr. Maher noted in passing on his show the unlikelihood that we’ll be seeing anytime soon a Palestinian-produced film told from Israelis’ point of view.

Indeed, the existence of any Palestinian dramatic art venturing anything less than lockstep compliance with party-line extremism is now under threat.

Just this week, Juliano Mer Khamis, an actor of mixed Jewish and Arab descent, was shot and killed in Jenin.

His crime? Running a drama school.

Here was Mer Khamis — a living, breathing example of the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement — promoting theater and artistic freedom in a West Bank refugee camp, in the face of some menacing combination of violent Palestinian extremism and radical Islamism, and paying for it with his life.

There is Julian Schnabel, traipsing through the capitals of Europe and America, literally in the comfort of his pajamas, congratulating himself for questioning the actions of a secular democracy.

Who is — was — the braver artist?

Ms. Jebreal, who adapted the movie’s screenplay from her own novel, is similarly pleased with her backbone. She told The Washington Post: “For Hamas, I’m an enemy … someone who is literate, liberal, moderate. I eat what I want. I say what I want. And I’m with a Jewish man!”

Well, there’s another movie I’d like to see. An Arab girl grows up in Jerusalem and becomes a literate, liberal moderate. She eats what she wants. She says what she wants. She falls in love with a Jewish man! Ponder the reaction to that movie in the West Bank, and then ask yourself which side needs to work on its communication skills.

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