Still image from Rachel; inset: Simone Bitton
I think they had a pro-Palestinian agenda, and I don’t think that having a pro-Palestinian agenda means having an anti-Israeli agenda. Actually, as an Israeli, I have a pro-Palestinian agenda, and I think that when life will be normal and reasonable for Palestinians, it will be much better for Israelis too.
I don’t think it’s an insult to say that somebody has a pro-Palestinian agenda. If it means that somebody is committed to more justice for the Palestinians, who have been oppressed, bombed, caged, occupied, it’s very good to have a pro-Palestinian agenda. It’s not only good, it’s absolutely needed if you don’t want the Middle East to explode in the face of the world, more than it has exploded already.
Andrew O’Hehir, Salon, May 3, 2009
Interview with Simone Bitton
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Simone Bitton’s documentary “Rachel,” which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, is what’s not in it. Bitton, a Moroccan-born Jewish filmmaker who spent many years in Israel and now lives in France, conducts a philosophical and cinematic inquiry into the death of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American activist who was killed under ambiguous circumstances in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip in March 2003. But the political firestorm that followed Corrie’s death, which saw her beatified as a martyr for peace by some on the left and demonized as a terrorist enabler by some on the right, is virtually absent from the film.
We do not see the infamous photograph of the keffiyeh-clad Corrie burning an “American flag” — not a real flag, but a crude children’s drawing of one — at a demonstration about a month before her death. Nor do we see the torrent of exaggerated and often shocking verbal abuse to which Corrie was subjected, postmortem, on right-wing bulletin boards and Web sites. Corrie, who suffered massive internal injuries when she was either crushed by a bulldozer or buried under construction debris, was routinely dubbed “Saint Pancake” in such venues, or described as “terrorist-loving swine.” (That’s without getting into the grotesque sexual fantasies and elaborate conspiracy theories.)
Bitton approaches Corrie’s death from an Israeli point of view, which means she sees it quite differently from the way Americans do. For her, it’s partly a forensic puzzle — an episode of “CSI: Gaza” without a clear resolution — and as a philosophical challenge to the military and political status quo. It’s important to understand that within Israel, Corrie’s encounter with a military bulldozer (an enormous armored machine called the Caterpillar D9, built in the United States to Israeli specifications) and the subsequent investigation were a relatively minor news blip, not the full-on media frenzy we enjoyed.
While it’s unusual for a Westerner to die in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Corrie was neither the first nor the last, and no individual death can make much impression amid the constantly clicking body count on all sides. In the film, one of Corrie’s friends recalls that the Gaza hospital mortuary had to move her body out to make room for someone else, a Palestinian man who had reportedly left his house to smoke a cigarette and was shot by an Israeli sniper.
After an internal inquiry, the Israeli military announced that Corrie’s death was a tragic accident, and that the bulldozer driver who ran her over (or maybe buried her beneath a mound of dirt) never saw her or heard her. Corrie’s fellow activists and Palestinian onlookers continued to insist that she was plainly visible, standing on a raised berm of earth in a bright orange vest, and that the driver killed her deliberately. The whole thing floated away on a cloud of irresolution — another not-quite-explained killing in the occupied territories — and other stories took over the Israeli front pages.
Until she visited the U.S. late in production to meet Corrie’s family, friends and classmates in Olympia, Wash., Bitton was unaware that Corrie embodied an ideological divide in American discourse about the Middle East. When I asked her about the flag-burning photo, she didn’t seem to understand that many Americans view that act as tantamount to treason. (Other nations do not tend to view their flags with the same quasi-religious fervor.)
Herself a former Israeli peace activist, Bitton is clearly sympathetic to Corrie and her Western activist friends, who conducted a nonviolent and arguably foolhardy campaign of resistance, at immense personal risk, against Israeli demolition projects in the no man’s land along the Gaza-Egypt border. Suffice it to say this movie will not make her many friends among the Likudnik Israeli right, or in the “Israel lobby” of the American establishment. But while it makes no pretense of neutrality, “Rachel” is not first or foremost pursuing a political agenda. Like Bitton’s previous film, “Wall” — about the construction of the barrier fence between Israel and the autonomous West Bank — it finds human surprises and philosophical depth within a symbol of that intractable conflict.
Bitton makes no effort at political calculus, at resolving questions of who is most to blame in the Palestinian dilemma, or whether the Israeli occupation’s crimes are worse than those of Hamas or Hezbollah. She also does not claim to have answered the question of exactly how and why Corrie died, and at this point all possibility of certainty seems to have vanished. Maybe the bulldozer driver snapped and ran her over on purpose; maybe he really didn’t see her; maybe he was trying to frighten her and went too far. In asking various of Corrie’s friends to read excerpts from her letters, Bitton tries to redeem a real young woman — who was undeniably idealistic but also surprisingly eloquent and thoughtful — from the warring stereotypes of peacenik angel and anti-Semitic Hamas agent.
During our conversation in a Manhattan hotel lobby, Bitton scolded me for asking too many questions about Corrie’s political significance. “Let’s talk about cinema,” she said. For American viewers of “Rachel,” though, there will be no escaping the political connotations of Corrie’s death. Because of where she died and how she died, the American-made girl flattened by an American-made bulldozer became a powerful counter-symbolic reminder of America’s moral, financial and material sponsorship of the Israeli occupation regime. Whether or not you think that regime is itself justified, it remains a primary reason why our country is loathed and mistrusted throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
I just want to get your story straight, Simone. You were born in Morocco?
Yes. Chronologically, I am Moroccan, Israeli, French. That is the story of my life, so I have the three citizenships, cultures. I am all three.
The fact that you can speak both Arabic and Hebrew has played a large role in your filmmaking, right? You can cross that divide pretty easily.
Yes, of course. It has played a role in my life.
What drew you to make a film about Rachel Corrie?
Many things, but of course it was not the internal U.S. controversy. I am from there, you know, and it’s a story from there. Rachel Corrie’s story is important in the Middle East, but it’s not as known as it is here. There, it was just a little item in the news the day she was killed, because people get killed every day, so many Palestinians and so many Israelis. You know, we live with death. So it’s not like for the Americans. She’s the only American citizen who was killed in the Palestinian territories.