|Director Julian Schnabel and screenwriter Rula Jebreal attend the premiere of Miral [GALLO/GETTY]
Most Americans, Jew and Gentile, grew up with the Leon Uris history of the struggle for the Holy Land. Exodus chronicles the heroic birth of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. There the story ends; there is no other narrative.
This politically convenient and magnificently incomplete version of history remains the dominant American narrative of the tragedy known as Israel and Palestine. Despite the cracks in that narrative in recent years, the über story of Exodus – Uris' 1958 mega-bestseller, and the subsequent Hollywood film starring Paul Newman – still holds a tremendous grip on the American imagination. It may be one of the most influential pieces of fiction ever written in the US. A friend of mine, growing up Jewish in Minneapolis, read it 11 times, his heart surging with glory for the Israeli triumph.
In Exodus there are only heroic or victimised Jews; only malicious, pathetic or cowardly Arabs, driven not by a love of their land but by fear and manipulation. As Uris tells the story, the Palestinians have no legitimate claim to their homeland: "If the Arabs of Palestine loved their land, they could not have been forced from it – much less run from it without real cause." Here there is no Deir Yassin massacre; no "Plan Dalet" and its blueprint for sewing fear and fire in Arab villages; no Nakba and its dispossession of 750,000 indigenous Palestinians.
Controlling the narrative
Maintaining control of the Uris narrative is thus an important task for protectors of the status quo. Certain "balanced" accounts may be acceptable, but not mainstream versions that simply tell the story from a Palestinian point of view.
So what happens when a new film set for major American theatrical release threatens to do just that – with a premiere at the UN General Assembly, no less?
The movie is Miral, based on the autobiographical novel by Rula Jebreal that tells the story of three generations of Palestinian women. Its UN opening was greeted with protests from mainstream American Jewish organisations. "The show went on and, once again, Israel got the short end of the stick," wrote David Harris of the American Jewish Congress (AJC) in a Jerusalem Post piece. Harris' protests were couched as a criticism of the UN General Assembly and the fact that a pro-Israel film had never screened there, in part because of "the powerful Arab bloc" and "their buddies".
Yet the real concern of groups like the AJC is that they are losing control of the narrative. Harris quotes a review from his colleague, Lisa Palmieri-Billig, complaining that "Israel is portrayed as the unequivocal villain" in the film, by director Julian Schnabel, who is Jewish. "Not only did Schnabel choose not to tell the whole story, but he also shirked a director's responsibility of providing the historical framework necessary for even his half of the story."
Such concerns are not limited to groups like the AJC. Deborah Sontag, in a recent New York Times Q&A with Schnabel, asked: "Why were you drawn to tell the Palestinian story rather than the Israeli one?" and twice asked him if the film portrays Israel negatively.
Yet telling the Palestinian side of the story – i.e. not telling the story from both sides - was precisely the point of the movie, and the book it is based on.
It is not clear what exactly has overheated the critics, many of whom have not even seen the film. Could it be the black and white images of Jewish refugees near the film's opening – accompanied not by familiar swelling music but by dark, minor strains, a kind of foreboding for Palestinians in the 1940s who opposed the Jewish influx from Europe? Could it be the 1948 encounter between a young Palestinian woman in Jerusalem's Old City with children who survived the massacre at Deir Yassin? Or the picture of an Israeli steam shovel demolishing a Palestinian home in 1967? Or that Palestinian children stare through the window of a bus travelling through the West Bank, at the ever-sprouting hilltop Jewish settlements? Or this line about the settlers from a Palestinian protagonist: "What they really want is all of Palestine, without the Palestinians"?
Or perhaps it is much more primal than that. Jennifer Jajeh, the Palestinian-American author of the provocative one-woman show, I Heart Hamas, wondered playfully at a Miral premiere party in Los Angeles this week: "What's the problem? Is it because the rebel guy is cute?"
Stuck in a moment of hope
Yet it might not be fair to compare Omar Metwally to Paul Newman, or Miral to its would-be Leon Uris counterpart.
As a movie, Miral, solely in terms of sheer storytelling power, is no Exodus. Reviews of the film – despite strong performances from Hiam Abbass as the director of a Jerusalem school for girls, and Yasmine Almasri as the mother of the title character (played by the Indian actress Freida Pinto) – have been lukewarm at best. NPR called it "well-intentioned" but dismissed it as an "art project that took a wrong turn"; the Guardian labelled an earlier, longer version of it "an incredible clunker".
One of the harshest reviews comes from a Palestinian website, Electronic Intifada, where Omar El-Khairy called it "a rather drab, and at times infuriating, bourgeois melodrama". He denounced Schnabel's casting of Pinto, who starred in Slumdog Millionaire, "as a modern day Pocahontas who can be effectively transplanted from a Mumbai slum to an orphanage in Jerusalem". This last dig ignores that Schnabel was trying for star power to take a Palestinian story mainstream, and, more incidentally, the strong resemblance between Pinto and the real-life Jebreal.
The flimsiest critique of Miral comes from those who believe Israel can do no wrong. Contrary to their claims, the movie is hardly a screed against the Jewish state. In the end the film celebrates a coexistence vision, laid out by Metwally's character, who disavows his militancy, telling Miral: "The road is too bloody." Palestinians, he says, must agree to a state on 22 per cent of their ancestral homeland (i.e. the West Bank and Gaza). "I just want to live," he declares, shortly before being murdered by his militant former cadres.
Indeed, the film's final call for "peace," evoked in a title card aimed at a 2011 audience, seems oddly stuck in a fleeting hopeful moment in 1994, when many Palestinians supported a two state solution, and believed it was possible.
That was before the number of West Bank settlers tripled, a network of "settlers-only" roads crisscrossed a would-be Palestinian state and a ring of settlements virtually choked off Arab East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. Today the prospect of a two-state solution is harder than ever to imagine. Yet Schnabel's final message evokes the story not so much of Palestinian hopes in 2011 as those of Peace Now and the dwindling Israeli peace camp.
Yet despite its flaws, Schnabel and Jebreal's Miral marks one of the first times anyone has tried to tell just a Palestinian story in a mainstream Hollywood release. That in itself is a remarkable step, and another indication of a slow loosening of Uris' grip on the American understanding of this long tragedy.
Sadly, though, it appears that pro-Israel critics clinging to the Exodus narrative have little to worry about. Unless the critical reviews give way to more supportive ones, the film may not last long in theatres, and a resonant mainstreaming of the "Palestinian side of the story" may have to wait for another day.
Sandy Tolan is an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC and the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the heart of the Middle East.
The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.