The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

An Interview with Simone Bitton on Her New Movie Rachel

Simone Bitton
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.

Still, I was very moved by the story because it was the first time that somebody who came to protect the Palestinians was killed. It was the whole notion of protection, of nonviolent resistance. It was a red line which has been crossed. It was very frightening. More personally, I would say, just as a human being and as a filmmaker: She was 23 years old, and I am 53 years old, and I am somehow mourning my own youth. Not my own commitments, but when you are 53, you don’t translate your commitment in the same way. It was a way for me to maybe think about youth and commitment.

Before we turned the camera on, you said that you couldn’t really comment on the controversy about Rachel Corrie in the United States, and I understand that. But one of the allegations that has come up both in the U.S. and Israel is the idea that the group that she was involved with had a pro-Palestinian agenda and was passively or actively encouraging terrorism. What would you say to that?

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.

What specifically was Rachel Corrie’s group doing in the Gaza Strip?

They were there, as far as I know, to be with Palestinian families, to live with them, to help them, to express their solidarity. Rachel herself had a vague project of promoting the idea of twin cities between her home city [Olympia, Wash.] and Rafah, in Palestine. But when they found themselves there, the Israeli army started demolishing civilian houses, one after the other, because they were aiming to create a no man’s land along the border with Egypt. So they started trying to protect these people from having their lives destroyed. They slept in these houses and called out by megaphone to the soldiers that they were there, hoping that this will stop the soldiers from shooting. Actually it did, many times. They were trying to prevent the bulldozers from demolishing the homes of just, you know, normal, completely innocent and very poor families.

It has also been suggested that Rachel was an idealistic and naive person who found herself in a situation she didn’t fully understand. Or that her group, the International Solidarity Movement, was being manipulated by Hamas or other players in the conflict, to cover a more sinister agenda.

You know, for sure they were not manipulated by anybody. They were very lucid and independent young people. They — what other insults do you have? Really, the word “manipulated” is so horrible because it shows… It’s very insulting towards them. You know, you have to be a very weak personality to be manipulated. They knew what they were doing, and they knew why they were there. They were politically conscious.

Now, you said “idealistic” and “naive” as if there were a dash between the two words. I don’t agree with this, you know? I think she had ideas, she had values. She had moral values, she had social values, she had political values. If somebody has no ideals when he’s 20 years old, when will he have values? So it’s a compliment to be idealistic, for a young person, but when you say “naive” that puts it upside down. I don’t agree with that.

Moving on to the subject of Rachel’s death, you interview a representative of the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces and…

Several of them.

Several of them, yes, about what happened. What is the official position, more or less, about what happened that day?

It’s not more or less. The official position is clearly that Rachel’s death was an accident because the bulldozer drivers didn’t see her. Sometimes they go as far as saying that she hid behind a pile of dirt so that she didn’t want to be seen. Sometimes they go as far as that, but mostly what is disturbing in the Israeli official version is that the bulldozers were not destroying houses that day. So, OK, if they were not destroying houses, what was she doing there in front of a bulldozer?

Now, there were other people who saw the episode, some international observers from many different countries and some Palestinian witnesses. And what they say they saw is quite different.

Well, there were contradictions in the versions, and this is why it was interesting for me. It was a challenge because I like complexity, you know. And our situation is very complex. There are contradictions between the versions and so I wanted to investigate. Believe me or not, but really, I didn’t know. The only thing I knew is that obviously I cannot take for granted the results of any inquiry made by the army, because this is not independent. The army is clearly accused of being responsible for these deaths, so it’s impossible that the inquiry will be made by the army. It needs an independent eye, and there was no court; there was no independent investigation whatsoever.

Mine is independent, OK, but I have no juridical value, you know? So this film is an independent investigation into the death of Rachel Corrie, but it turned out also to be an inquiry into the investigation itself, into the inquiry process of the Israeli army. Now, for example, the Israeli army says they are investigating possible violations of human rights during the bombings in Gaza in January. All the time the Israeli army investigates the killing of civilians, and in 99.9 of these cases, there is no independent investigation, and nobody’s punished, you know?

Not that it is the only army in the world that kills civilians. I’m not naive — it’s not. But maybe it is the one who kills civilians and it is so easy for the Western world to accept it and to swallow it. Maybe it is the only one where there are so many lies and hypocrisy around it, you know? It is not the army who kills the most civilians in the world, but maybe it is the army for which it is so easy to lie about it and to still be presented as democratic — this is a problem. The hypocrisy about it, you know? As an Israeli I would prefer them to be less hypocritical. If they continue to kill, at least I would like them to stop lying.

Has your film been seen in Israel yet?

Not yet, but it will be. In Israel, when you are a Jew you can say what you want. When you are a Jew. That part is very important.

Well, I know you want to stay out of American politics, but it has sometimes been said that it’s easier for Jews in Israel to criticize Israeli policy than it is for Jews in the United States.

I don’t live here, and I don’t have much experience with American media. But I think it’s really time for the Americans, especially the Jews among them, to stop being intimidated by this pressure, from the Israeli lobby or whoever it is. They should say what they really feel. A lot of people are talking in our name who are not entitled to talk in our name. I am not alone at all. Thousands, or tens of thousands, of Israelis are against this occupation, and are against the killing of civilians and the demolition of civilian houses. I worked very hard on my film, and all the facts that I bring in are double-checked and triple-checked. I’m very rigorous in my work, so I will not let anybody say that I am a propagandist or a pro-Palestinian. I’m pro-justice and for my people too, first of all.

Is it important for Israelis to explore the story of Rachel Corrie because she represents a larger problem, or is there something special about her case that makes it different?

You know, you are asking me questions which are so general and so political, and I am just a filmmaker, I’m just a storyteller. I don’t know what is important for the collective, you know, I know what moves me from inside, what touches me. Here’s a story that does something to my heart, to my emotions, so I just want to share it with other people.

OK, well, here’s something specific: There’s this scene in the film where you show us the surveillance video you got from the Israeli military, which should show us Rachel’s death. But then, at the key moment, the camera is pointing somewhere else. It’s like this frustrating microcosm of your whole film.

I knew that in the Palestinian territories there are military cameras everywhere, the whole territory is controlled by camera. There must be huge operation rooms in military headquarters with screens, you know. Even in the old city of Jerusalem, there is one camera after the other, there is no dead angle. So I knew for sure that the Philadelphi corridor and all Rafah [the road and city where Corrie was killed] were filmed all the time by these military cameras.

So obviously there should have been a recording of the mission during which Rachel was killed. I tried to obtain it, and it was very difficult, but in the end I got a tape from the Israeli military and I remember the young soldier who gave me the tape telling me, “Oh, I had to work all night to get it ready for you.” I don’t know exactly what they did, but what is for sure is that we see a little bit of the mission scene before [Corrie’s death], and we see after, but we don’t see it happen. When I go very slowly, image by image, I can see that it has been cut. Also there are conversations between the soldiers on this tape, and these cameras have no sync. Obviously the sound comes from another machine; somebody had put it together.

If we were in a court, this videotape wouldn’t have any value. But I’m in a film, and in a film it has great value. It’s one hour into the film and we’ve been talking about these bulldozers, this group of young people, this house which was standing and now has been destroyed, and here it is — here’s the place, here’s the house, here are the bulldozers. It’s very, very strong emotionally and cinematographically, and I chose to have it in the film with commentary by one of the young activists. He recognizes himself in this very bad-quality image because he was wearing a white T-shirt and there’s a white spot of somebody running in the frame. It’s a very strong situation, to recognize yourself on the image of a military video camera, when you were not aware you were being filmed.

Another thing you try to do is convey some sense of the personality of a person you cannot interview, because she is dead.

Well, she helped me, she made my life easy because she was writing. She cannot talk to me anymore, but she wrote, and she wrote quite beautifully. In her letters, in her e-mails, you can see in a few weeks that she was there, her political consciousness was fed by the meeting with reality. She’s asking herself the right questions, I think. She writes very beautifully about the Egyptian kids, the Egyptian soldiers who call out to her [across the border fence], and the international kids with banners, describing herself and her friends, and the Israeli kids in the tanks. I like that in her. It took her very little time to understand the complexity of what a war is. You have the responsibility of the systems, of the armies, of the politicians, but at the end it is just kids sent one against another, to kill and to be killed. And I like the way she writes this.

Late in the film, you include an interview with someone who’s not directly related to the story of Rachel Corrie, a young Israeli peace activist you meet in Tel Aviv. He has some remarkable things to say, and I wondered if that was close to an authorial statement or a directorial statement from you?

Yeah, maybe. Sometimes things come together in a magic way. He is related to the case because Rachel’s friends came to his house when Rachel’s body was brought to Tel Aviv. This was the place where they knew that they would be welcome. And her bag, with her journal in it, was brought there. And then I met this young Israeli peace activist who told me his own story. He’s doing these kinds of actions also. Not in Gaza, because they are not allowed to enter Gaza, but in the West Bank. Young Israeli activists, and some of them are not so young, who demonstrate together with Palestinians against the war, and many of them get wounded and are put in prison for that.

He told me beautiful things about commitment, which resonated with me. I was a peace activist when I was their age, you know. I was demonstrating against occupation when I was 25 years old, and our generation failed completely, because the situation is much more horrible now than it was. More settlements, more killings. So we failed. And now it’s on their shoulders, all this mess that we couldn’t solve.

I have the feeling that they are more lucid than we were, because we believed that we would solve it, you know. We were naive enough to think that it would be enough for a few thousand Israelis to stand up and say, “Hey, we don’t want this occupation, we want peace, we want the Palestinians to have their own state.” They are not so naive. They know that even if half the Israeli population is against the occupation, the occupation goes on and gets tougher and tougher. And the Israeli governments are more and more extremist and more and more right-wing. It’s really a catastrophe. So this young generation knows all this. They are more lucid, and still they are struggling without much hope, which I find really remarkable.

He says to you that it’s important to resist something that you know is wrong even if you know you will not succeed.

Yes, yes, and it’s a lesson, it’s a lesson. You asked me before about naiveté. What does it mean, naiveté? Does it mean that if you are not sure that you will succeed that you will not fight for freedom? Is that naiveté? If so, maybe we should hope that more people will be naive in this world.