Simone Bitton

Belgium, France, 2008.

Rachel is a documentary investigation of the death of American activist Rachel Corrie. She was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003, while participating in a non-violent peace protest organised through the International Solidarity Movement. rough a series of interviews director Simone Bitton asks the di erent players in the story where they were, what they were doing and what they saw. Interspersed are readings from Rachel’s diaries and letters, as well as still photographs of the scene and video from earlier similar protests. No conclusion is drawn, though the facts presented leave the viewer able to conclude for themselves what happened that day, and what the wider attitudes are behind the con ict in Gaza.

Rachel Corrie was 23-years old when she went to Palestine to participate in demonstrations against the Israeli occupation. The action takes place in March 2003, just a few days before the US invasion of Iraq, and before the election of Hamas. As such the political context is one of a slightly isolated cause, with demolitions progressing mostly uninhibited, by an Israeli Defense Force viewing it as mundane clearance work.

Working with a small group from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) Rachel was engaged in trying to disrupt of the work of Israeli bulldozers along the Egyptian border in the town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip. She was killed when crushed beneath a pile of earth, pushed forward by one of the drivers who failed to stop. Among several contested details of what actually happened, the driver of the heavily armoured D9 Bulldozer claimed that he had not seen the protester, easily identified by a bright orange jacket, because of his angle of vision. The other activists present claimed that this was not so: the driver had moved forward intentionally.

32cb69_b184a93530d84a36bca7c5a6f1f3ef24Moroccan-born, French-Israeli director Simone Bitton presents us with her investigation into Rachel’s death, and excerpts from Rachel Corrie’s letters and diaries give an illuminating picture of her motivation and ambitions. She comes across as a strong-minded person with a clear-headed vision of what she was doing and what she was trying to achieve. She was not a martyr or a victim, just someone who suffered an unfortunate accident that was perhaps inevitable. The wider question that the film indirectly asks is: what makes it inevitable? The very core of conflict lies in the dogged persistence of illegal occupation and house demolition. The fact this continues unabated, irrespective of whether the occupants of the houses remain in them or not, means there is bound to be collateral damage, in the form of Palestinian civilian deaths, and, in this case, in the form of someone trying to express her solidarity through helping them to resist.

The foreign activists are anxious to do something, whatever it may be. The particular incident with the bulldozers is a symbolic action that cannot
possibly be successful. The Palestinian householders appreciate the presence of the activists, but they are isolated families, alone in their friendship. Something of the isolated nature of the struggle in Gaza is reflected in the film. The foreign activists are alone in the front line, protected by their non- Palestinian nationality, yet in many ways it seems
that they are not really prepared for what they are required to do. In the fateful moments before Rachel’s death, she is isolated and alone confronting the bulldozers like a matador, while her companions are standing together in a group to the side.

ISM itself is a non-violent group that seeks active confrontation with the occupation forces, acting with international support to try to break down Palestinian isolation, and thus empowering the powerless. The film shows the house, now unoccupied, where the activists had been trained (for one day only) in the techniques of nonviolent direct action. Ghassan Andoni, ISM founder, explains that everyone had signed a paper indicating that each individual took full legal responsibility for anything untoward that might happen, yet he admitted that he did personally feel some personal moral responsibility for what might occur.

While the Palestinian struggle is at the heart of the story, the film makes sharp comments about the Israeli indifference to what is going on. Indifference shines through in the testaments from the spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Force (who describes it as “a regrettable incident”) as well as from Shami Cohen, head of the Military Police Investigation Unit, whose squirming body language is a lesson in what not to do in front of a camera – when justifying, for instance, why not all the witnesses were interviewed. A bulldozer driver’s reaction to the activists add to a sense of detachment: looking bewildered, he earnestly tries to explain to the activists: “it’s not your war, it’s my war”, as if they did not understand.

The naïveté of the American environment from which Rachel sprang suggests a community unfocussed on the wider world beyond the US She seems, perhaps, to have been an exception. Her teachers mutter some platitudes about one of their programmes, called “From Local to Global”, with the main focus on the local. They were clearly somewhat surprised by her decision to head off to Palestine.

There is today a clear and deep need in many young people to not only speak out but to take direct action. The ability to resist without hope, but also without despair, is what keeps them going, explains Yonaton Polak in the film. Simone Bitton was herself a peace activist 25 years ago, and she
believes that the young of today are more lucid, more aware that their actions are unlikely to have any real effect. “Our generation failed, everything is worse now” she said in a recent interview with Ciné Sud “We believed we would solve it. A few thousand Israelis standing up for a state and equality – we were naïve enough to think the whole world would understand. They (the young activists today) are not naive: they know the occupation goes on and on, and the international community lets them do it.”

Rachel loses its structure at times and is too long. But it is shot cleverly, and is potentially an important starting point for vigourous debate about activism today as well as the actions of those involved in the Middle East conflict.