Sometimes the difference between murder and tragic accident depends on which side of the intellectual or political divide you're on; this is something that will certainly color one's reaction to Rachel, director Simone Bitton's reading of the death of Rachel Corrie. A 23 year old peace activist from Olympia, Washington, Corrie traveled to the Gaza Strip to show solidarity with Palestinians and protest their treatment by the Israelis. In March 2003, Corrie was killed by a 65-ton Israeli military bulldozer razing Palestinian houses near the Egyptian border. Whether or not Corrie was intentionally run over has been an ongoing mystery that gained worldwide attention because it concerned a young, American woman sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. There's much drama to be relived and evidence to be presented, yet Bitton operates at a cool, investigatory remove that's not as objective as it looks. This will prevent Rachel from expanding beyond interested parties. Nevertheless, it's a well structured, sometimes riveting piece of information gathering that proves once again that Corrie's death was unnecessary and that closure has remained intriguingly, maddeningly, sadly elusive.
Bitton describes herself as an Arab Jew, as if this bestows upon her the ability to see both sides of the issue. But beneath her cloak of rigor, thoroughness and objectivity, she's a polemicist. Rachel was generous with sound bites from both sides: Palestinians movingly recall the woman they considered a family member, her friends and family recount that horrible day and Israeli functionaries are given long, uninterrupted opportunities to hang themselves. Bitton's sensitive voice carries the prickly urgency of a tough interrogator who knows there are too many troubling grey areas in the official record. Why, exactly, was Corrie's official cause of death listed as suffocation and not injuries from being slaughtered by heavy machinery? And why was Corrie's body and the bulldozer removed from the area before investigators could arrive?
What's frustrating about incidents like Rachel Corrie's death is that the truth exists, it is absolute, someone knows it and that someone isn't talking. The actions of the bulldozer drivers are suspect, but not wholly incriminating. They stand by their claim that they ran over Corrie because vision is severely compromised in the heavily armored D9 bulldozer and they simply didn't see her. To that, Bitton counters with a drawing depicting the fallacy of such a claim. One of Bitton's big finds is a grainy army video recorded at the time Corrie met her fate. Imagine this, there's a gap in the video as the incident was occurring. However, in the captured audio the drivers hardly sound vengeful or celebratory. If anything, they sound professionally nonplussed.
Bitton can't definitively prove her case, so she settles for the unease that comes when too many mysteries remain unresolved. This discomfort becomes the proof she seeks. While ultimate culpability is elusive, she does create a vivid picture of the young idealist. Corrie's friends read from her increasingly prophetic writings, which go from "buy phone card" to the jittery "start smoking" to the recalling of nightmares about bulldozers. Like many idealists, Corrie probably had no idea what she was really getting herself into when she hit Gazan soil. She was a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a pro-Palestinian, non-violent organization. As an ISM member, Corrie would routinely wield her bullhorn and stand in front of machines that were destroying bullet-riddled Palestinian homes. This certainly didn't endear her to the Israelis, including the bulldozer driver who sticks his head out from his heavily fortified vehicle and yells, "It's not your war. It's my war." And it surely didn't endear her to stateside Jews. In 2009, protests greeted a screening of Rachel at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which included an appearance by Rachel's mother, Cindy. But instead of condemning this poetic button-pusher, consider its unintended message. Not many Jews will watch Rachel and mourn the death of a Palestinian sympathizer, but given recent controversies, all Jews should mourn the end of Israel's uncontested perch atop the moral high ground. Once that's gone, all the D9 bulldozers in the world can't raise that ground again.
Distributor: Women Make Movies
Director/Screenwriter: Simone Bitton
Producer: Thierry Lenouvel
Running time: 100 min
Release date: October 8 NY