MONTREAL — French-Israeli filmmaker Simone Bitton exhaustively probes the still-disputed circumstances of the 2003 death in Gaza of Rachel Corrie, the young American pro-Palestinian demonstrator, in her documentary Rachel, which opens in Montreal cinemas Jan. 29.
Corrie, a fresh-faced, sweet-natured 23-year-old from Olympia, Wash., was a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-based organization claiming to use non-violent resistance to Israel, which attracted young foreigners ready to act as human shields between Palestinians and the Israeli military.
Corrie was trying to block an Israeli army bulldozer by standing in front of it while it was clearing land of possible explosives in the then Israeli-held territory in Rafah, near the Egyptian border. The ISM maintained its real goal was to demolish the nearby house of a pharmacist.
What exactly happened that March day is not definitively answered by the film, but Bitton can’t be faulted for not trying to get the facts. She interviewed just about everybody who either witnessed the tragedy, investigated it or who has an opinion on it, and attempts to reconstruct the sequence of events.
These include the reserve colonel who headed the army’s inquiry, the four Americans and Britons with Corrie during the protest, her parents, the Palestinian doctor at the hospital where she was declared dead, and the Israeli doctor who conducted her autopsy.
Although the two physicians differ in other ways, they found no evidence that Corrie was actually run over by the massive vehicle. They both concluded suffocation was the cause.
The 100-minute film contains transcripts of testimonies in the Israeli military inquiry and audio from the radio communications between the two bulldozer operators and their commanders.
Although the Israeli military determined that Corrie’s death was accidental and there was no basis for court martial, her family, Palestinians and their supporters remain unconvinced. Corrie has become a martyr to the Palestinian cause, mythologized through such means as the play My Name is Rachel Corrie, which was performed in Montreal in December 2008.
Through journalistic legwork, Bitton attempts to get beyond the emotion.
One side maintains that the Israeli soldiers had to have known Corrie was right in front of the tank because the standoff had gone on for hours in open terrain, while the other that they could not have seen her because she was behind a pile of earth and that even under the best of circumstances vision is limited from the towering armoured bulldozers.
The impression left is that Corrie was a well-meaning, idealistic person, but naïve and uninformed. When she arrived in Israel two months before her death, she wrote in her diary that she didn’t know much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
She saw the Palestinians as victims of brutal military oppression and developed a deep emotional attachment to the people she lived among.
Col. Shalom Cohen, who headed the inquiry, admits his work was hampered from the start, because by the time he arrived at the scene, the two bulldozers and tank that were involved in the operation, as well as Corrie’s body, were no longer there, and he had to rely on soldiers’ statements.
The video taken of the scene by the army, which is shown in the film, scans the terrain, but the focus is not on the bulldozer and Corrie at the moment she is hit. The only visuals are the still photos taken by her fellow protesters.
Bitton’s portrayal of the Israeli army response is that it was pro forma, rather cold and unfeeling, despite the expression of regret for the death of a civilian. The chief commander in Gaza, in fact, praises the soldiers for their restraint in the face of the “reckless” foreigners who had harassed their operations for hours.
One of the most poignant comments in Rachel is from a young Scottish man, one of the ISM protesters who was with Corrie when she died. Only 19 in 2003, he says: “In a way, we were extremely naïve. We thought we could make a difference.”
This 2008 film made its North American premiere at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival last spring, and was later screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
Rachel is a French production, but done in English. Its Montreal run, at the AMC Forum and Cinéma du Parc, has English and French subtitles for the Hebrew and Arabic dialogue.