I went to see Simone Bitton’s documentary Rachel at the Tribeca Film Festival last night. I almost did not go, was in a weird already slightly depressed mood, but I did it. I stood in the rush tickets line, first there, but ended up buying an extra student ticket off some girl. The ticket scanner – all tickets have a bar code – could not read it at first and I was about to have to hunt down some NYU girl and take back my money, but it was their machine and I got in.
I am really glad I decided to go. I got into the theater about 30 minutes before the film started and sat myself all the way in the back at the aisle. The theater slowly filled and I knew that the director was present because a woman standing behind me in the rush tickets line was pulled out of line by an older white man to go meet Bitton. I was on the phone with Teejay at the time and we were slyly making jokes about getting in for free. (Total side note: Meg Ryan walked out of the cinema while I was in line. She has a movie playing at Tribeca).
According to the synopsis on Tribeca’s site, Bitton uses an objective direction to reveal the story of Rachel Corrie. For those who do not know, Rachel Corrie was a 24 year-old USer from Washington state who had gone to Palestine and worked with the International Solidarity Movement to take direct action against the Israeli government destroying Palestinian homes. On 16 March, 2003 she was bulldozed to death by Israeli military. The Israeli army claims that Rachel Corrie’s death was an accident, while her ISM peers as well as the Palestinian man whose home she was trying to defend from being bulldozed, state that the bulldozer driver saw Rachel Corrie and intentionally killed her. When I read the synopsis I thought to myself: There is no such thing as objectivity, so does this mean the movie is going to be blatantly pro-Israeli? In my experience when people or corporations or entities claim objectivity, it is not the case. Fox News, for example, makes the bold statement that they are “fair and balanced,” when they are in fact very clearly one-sided. I have nothing against them being one-sided, I do however, take issue with lying to my face. Perhaps their statement is not so bold, because it is more laughable. But objectivity is something that we are taught to pursue, at least here in the US. That there are always “two sides” to every story and both can be equally represented, when in fact there are always multiple sides. Hearing the various renditions and takes of a story does not mean we have to compromise our beliefs or our ideals or our principles. It takes great courage and intelligence to be able to hear what others have to say, particularly if it is in regard to something so serious or heavy. And when I say intelligence, I do not mean some sort of higher degree of education, let’s be clear.
Because my experience with the media as “objective” has generally meant that the media are in fact in support of things like Zionism, invading Iraq, etc., I thought that this supposed non-bias view would be pro-Israel. The movie, however, is anything but pro-Israel. I was pleasantly reminded that this is not a US film or a US filmmaker. This is not someone who seems to feeding a larger corporate agenda. This is a filmmaker who has her own personal views, political and social, and seeks to expose what she knows to be the truth. There is no objectivity in life or in death.
Bitton interviews Rachel Corrie’s ISM peers, an Israeli soldier stationed in Rafah where Rachel was killed, at the time, the military policeman who conducted the investigation, an Israeli military spokesperson, the Palestinian families ISM folks lived with, four of Rachel Corrie’s professors in Washington, an Israeli social justice activist who provided a space for some ISM folks, and others. Bitton’s intentions are clear: she is not here to say Palestinians are always in the right and Israelis are always in the wrong. She is however telling the story, one story of many, of a continuous invasion and destruction of lives by a government aware of their own lies and hypocrisy.
The Israeli soldier interviewed keeps his back to the camera and is filmed in shadows. He was not there on 16 March, 2003, but he was stationed in Rafah at the time and relates stories of shooting homes “for fun” as a scare tactic, destroying water coolers, and killing sometimes “innocent” people. (I am always amazed at the distinction made between those who are killed, that women and children are somehow more valuable than men, that civilians are more valuable than soldiers. Imagine being a soldier and knowing that your life is considered less than. Granted, they are in a profession of murder). As the soldier shared his experiences I expected to be angry at him. I expected to hate him. But I did not. He took part in some terrible things, and yet, he is also part of a larger system of destruction that takes place on a daily basis. I pitied him. Perhaps that is worse.
Rachel’s friends from ISM relate what happened and actions they took before Rachel’s death. Two of them read from Rachel’s diary, giving Rachel voice to herself. It is amazing to hear the insights she had and to also know the pain and guilt she felt regarding her own privilege, but the strength her experiences in Palestine gave her; it made her want to continue to work for social justice. She said she would love to date boys and go dancing, but she was not ready yet to leave. And she could not understand how we all did not take action to end such violence. The young Israeli activist who sheltered some of the ISM folks similarly states that he cannot imagine living in Israel, but anywhere really, and not taking action to stop and battle injustice. Bitton asks if one can strive for social justice without hope, and he says yes. I wish I could remember his exact words after that, but he basically says that one can work without hope, but that does not mean it has to be negative or in vain either.
The film unfolds in a mostly linear frame, after a brief review of Rachel’s death and two diary entries read aloud. Bitton chronicles Rachel’s experiences with stories from those she interviewed and reviews or “recaps” from the military. I was fascinated by the interviews with other ISM members. Some are still clearly shaken, one a little disillusioned, and some remain active in social justice work. As they move from talking about their general actions to Rachel’s death, there are pauses and lulls in words, there are quiverings voices and wandering eyes. They watched the friend get murdered. They carried her body. They traveled with her body.
There was a naive feeling, but also a privileged one, that as internationals, and as white folks, they – the ISM workers – would not be harmed.
As I watched the movie I realized that the accounts detailed by Israeli soldiers were read aloud over images of documents and photographs. Granted, Bitton revealed in the Q&A that getting Israeli military folks to agree to be on camera was difficult, but I also read it to show that these voices do not deserve a face to face personal account (though that could really be my own prejudice, after all, one soldier does share his story, just not face to face) and ultimately represent a larger system of oppression. There is one person responsible for driving the bulldozer and crushing Rachel Corrie, but again, this one person and the people stationed in Rafah are all part of the Israeli Army and the Israeli government, which systematically murders Palestinians.
I enjoyed hearing Rachel’s diary entries, getting to know her internal and moral struggles, her honesty, her commitment. It really struck me how easy it is to judge a situation we are outside of. I have my political and social ideas about Palestine and Israel, but as Rachel Corrie said, you cannot know until you are there. I spoke to a friend of mine about my sometimes annoyance at folks of privilege going to places in need and acting as saviors, but the truth is I have a hard time with large organizations or religious organizations presuming to know what is best for others. I could see the truth and commitment in Rachel Corrie and her colleagues, and they did not act as if they were saviors. There is an older Palestinian man who talks about the gratitude he felt towards Rachel and other ISM folks for coming to Palestine to help out. That he begged to help them in any way he could, and it made me think about the fact that I project my own feelings as a Muslim, Iranian, and Irish heritage person, someone who comes from people who have been colonized, and that my initial reaction to those in privilege reaching out is “I don’t want your handout,” but the truth is, I am not in the same situation as those Palestinians. And I have not gone over there to help either. I sit and watch and listen from a distance. I can only know so much from my perch.
Once the movie was over Simone Bitton was asked to come to front of the theater for a Q&A. The moderator asked her how she heard about Rachel Corrie’s story and her process in making the film. Bitton first welcomed Rachel Corrie’s parents to join her. Most viewers, myself included, were surprised and I began to cry. I heard the person seated next to me crying as well. That older white man who got the lady in line behind me in for free, that was Mr. Corrie.
The Q&A session was brief and I was so glad that Bitton was very gracious and asked Mr. and Mrs. Corrie to speak and answer questions. They all talked about still waiting for a formal investigation into Rachel’s death, the fact that so many Palestinians die without going noticed, that they (the Corries) participate in direct action in Palestine as a result of their daughter’s work, and Bitton talked briefly about her process interviewing people and her desire to investigate the investigation.
It was an overall great experience. Unfortunately I do not think I will be able to make any more screenings at Tribeca this year, but I am grateful to have made this one.