Painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel has the highest aims for his controversial new feature film "Miral." It tells the story of a disenfranchised Arab girl growing up in a Jerusalem orphanage during the violent 1987 Palestinian uprising. Its print advertising displays a woman's eye encircled by a barbed-wire Star of David.

"It's great, like the poster for 'Exodus,'" Schnabel said. He sees his provocative film as a catalyst for Mideast diplomacy, not mere entertainment. Visiting Minneapolis for the political drama's area premiere at Walker Art Center last week, Schnabel promoted his latest effort with moxie that P.T. Barnum might envy.

"Making art is making peace," he said. "Art is an affirmation of life. It is optimistic. I'm not a politician, a political analyst or a historian. I'm a civilian with certain skills, who can tell a story on film."

It's hard to think of a contemporary artist more suited to Hollywood than Schnabel. Art critic Robert Hughes called him the Sylvester Stallone of the art world. The Grove Dictionary of Art calls the celebrated 59-year-old painter "probably the most exhibited, financially successful and aggressively self-promoting American artist of his generation."

Imprisonment, confinement and limitation fascinate Schnabel. His huge-scaled Expressionist paintings feature surfaces of exotic materials, from shattered crockery to velvet and animal hides, but in them his restless exploration was just beginning. In the 1990s he took up filmmaking to utilize all the media available to him, mixing visual imagery and text, imagination and fact, fantasy and realism. With such renowned films as "Before Night Falls" (2000) and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (2007), Schnabel swiftly established himself as a director to be reckoned with.

The themes of captivity and freedom power all of Schnabel's fact-based films. His debut, "Basquiat," is a biographical drama about Schnabel's late friend Jean-Michel Basquiat. Schnabel's film portrays the Dionysian painter as the Jimi Hendrix of the Manhattan gallery scene, a boundary-bursting black pioneer in a lily-white milieu. "Before Night Falls" is a sensual, atmospheric portrait of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, a marginalized gay dissident who used beauty as his weapon against Castro's repressive regime. The hero of "Diving Bell" is an arrogant French magazine editor who struggles to have his humanity recognized after he is left mute and paralyzed by a massive stroke. Even Schnabel's concert film "Lou Reed Berlin," recording a multimedia stage performance of the anti-romantic concept album, tells the tale of a couple trapped in dead-end addiction.

American Jewish Committee protested U.N. screening

Now comes "Miral" (opening Friday), based on the experiences of Schnabel's girlfriend, TV journalist Rula Jebreal. The film, starring "Slumdog Millionaire's" Freida Pinto, has set ideologues clashing.

The American Jewish Committee protested "Miral's" premiere at UN headquarters this month, calling the showing "a blatantly one-sided event," and adding, "the film has a clear political message, which portrays Israel in a highly negative light." The film also offends Arab sensibilities, showing anti-Israeli prejudice and one Palestinian man killing another who advocates peace.

"Miral's" distributor, the Weinstein Co., is taking full advantage of the furor, marketing the political drama as "the film they tried to stop."

"It's not a regular movie. A regular movie doesn't need to be at the United Nations," Schnabel declared. He intended it not as a provocation, but a pathway to peace, he explained.

"It's not a pro-Palestinian movie," he said. "It's a movie about Palestinian people, so we get to see all kinds. I think the fact that it's not hyperbolic makes it even harder to take."

Schnabel said he set out to make a movie that was "educational and poetic at the same time.

"What do you do as an artist? You can either be a decorative artist and just try to decorate people's homes, or you can make some kind of cathartic, disruptive device that can generate empathy," he said.

"Miral" follows its heroine as she is drawn to armed resistance against Israeli forces before becoming disillusioned with terrorism. It includes a tender Arab-Israeli Romeo and Juliet subplot featuring Schnabel's daughter Stella.

Schnabel, who points out that his mother was president of Hadassah, the American Zionist women's organization, says Judaism and Israeli nationalism are not synonymous.

"Why are people angry at Julian Schnabel? Because he's betraying his tribe, he's not testifying for his tribe. The movie's about what happened to that girl. You can understand what happened to that girl [even though] we might not like some of the things that are being said about ourselves."

Schnabel said he sees the seeds of progressive change in the popular uprisings currently sweeping through the Middle East. And he hopes a tide of political change sweeps nonviolently through Israel, as well.

"I think it's spectacular. What's going on in Tunisia is great. What happened in Egypt is great. I think it's going to spread everywhere and at some moment Gadhafi will be out of there. I don't care how many guns he has, the people don't want him. It's just like she says in the movie: 'Why can't we have democracy where everybody has the same rights like in New York City?' It's absolutely naive and silly, but it's out of the mouths of babes."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186