Film Review: Simone Bitton’s investigative documentary, “Rachel”

A scene from Rachel.

One of a filmmaker’s primary roles in any inquiry is to illuminate the topic of the narrative through entertainment, information, posing challenges or any other kind of engagement. Simone Bitton’s Rachel, a new documentary about the death of International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activist Rachel Corrie, struggles to do this.

Bitton’s film strikes a sterile, detached tone as she relates the events around Corrie’s death in Rafah in 2003. Bitton is not trying for objectivity in this detachment, her sympathy is with Corrie, the Nasrallah family whose home Corrie was trying to defend and other victims of the occupation. Despite this Rachel still comes across as mechanical. It contains a wealth of information and a variety of viewpoints on a topic that arouses a great deal of passion but the film fails to engage.

Rachel opens with shots of Jerusalem’s Old City and voiceover readings of letters Corrie wrote to friends, family and fellow activists. The voices belong to ISM activists, several of whom are featured on camera. They are joined as subjects by everyone from the pathologist who examined Corrie’s body, to Palestinian activists and her parents to Israeli soldiers, military spokespersons, anarchists and more.

Bitton makes good use of this broad spectrum of participants to ask a great many questions of a great many individuals. This is often done in a detail-oriented manner as if finding out the exact height of a dirt mound clarifies the ethic in question and in this, the film shares a great flaw with many accounts of Corrie’s final moments. This is not to say the details are unimportant. God, as the saying goes, is in the details. But, to use another aphorism, one can also miss the forest for the trees. Bitton isn’t pushing for a definitive account of what happened on 16 March 2003, but she does inquire about the details from all parties.

Again, the details do matter, but the fundamental ethic is that the Israeli army had no business there in the first place. In criminal law this ethic is made clear through the intent, the mens rea, of the offender. If one is aggressively using a large piece of machinery to destroy property knowingly in close proximity to endangered persons and someone, unintentionally, dies from the attack, it’s called murder anyway despite the lack of specific intent to kill because a reasonable person could have seen the outcome of the action.

The most genial account of Corrie’s death in the film is with a bulldozer operator unintentionally pushing a mound of dirt over her causing her suffocation (the army’s position) during the commission of a war crime (everyone else’s position) — the mass destruction of property as collective punishment. If, for the sake of making a point, this is indeed the case, her death unintentionally caused during the commission of a war crime, this hardly releases the Israeli army or the bulldozer driver from blame. The moral and legal blame is identical, as is the causative relation of action and consequence with only the purpose differing and with it, a missing visceral offensiveness that accompanies a purposeful killing.

It’s the Rachel Corrie’s-death version of the brouhaha over the circumstances of the start of the 1967 War. Who primarily caused the war isn’t the fundamental question with regards to Palestinian liberation as international law says territory cannot be acquired by force, whether defensively or offensively applied. Not only should Corrie not have been killed, but the entire operation shouldn’t have happened in the first place. In Bitton’s film we generally get just the trees though and the forest around Corrie’s death goes unobserved. It shows up only briefly during an Israeli TV interview with someone from the bulldozer who, upon being asked how Corrie’s death could have been avoided, states, “If you ask us, drive away and not work there.” That is about the only certainty to be arrived at here and it’s about the only aspect not investigated.

Bitton is a sensitive interviewer yet does not hesitate to challenge the subjects or herself. One such episode is during a segment with Alice Coy from the ISM where Coy recounts Corrie’s body having to be moved from a medical examiner’s table to make room for another body, this one a Palestinian civilian casualty. The exchange is revealing:

Bitton asks, “Do you know the story of this man?” to which Coy replies, “He’d gone outside to have a cigarette outside his house … and a sniper had shot him. And there was no media about the Palestinian man that was shot. The fact that there was never any news, there’s no photos of Salim Najjar on the Internet, there’s no story about this man, what he was like …” Bitton answers, “Nobody would make a film about him.” Coy affirms, “Nobody would make a film about Salim Najjar.”

It is these moments that hint at the film Rachel aspires to be and almost is. In this sequence Bitton is inquiring about her own voyeurism, effectively restrained in the film, as well as challenging the audience to examine its own voyeurism and the value attached to the life of a North American activist compared to the life of a Palestinian civilian.

The participation of Corrie’s friends, teachers and family members offers a sense of the person she was and the cold film contrasts sharply with the obvious warmth they have for her. The segment with ISM co-founder Ghassan Andoni almost breaks out of the film’s icy frame as he elucidates the remarkable theory of interventionist and offensive nonviolence that underlies the ISM’s founding principles. But the distance and detachment Bitton establishes maddeningly keeps a revolutionary development, an international civil society intervention that is exceedingly rare in human history, at arm’s length.

A large part of the problem is that Rachel is a simple point-and-shoot style documentary mixed with some stock footage and still photos. The film is based entirely upon the physical actions taken by Corrie and other ISM activists but every subject save three are seated in static positions for their interviews. There is a palpable energy that picks up when the pathologist is interviewed and he’s standing up, even though he doesn’t go anywhere. Similarly, the segments with Dr. Samir Nasrallah, whose home Corrie was protecting, narrating the day’s events while strolling around the wreckage of his former home and Yonatan Pollack, guiding Bitton through his old Tel Aviv apartment, an ISM refuge at the time, breathe energy into the tedium. The static aesthetic reaches a kind of unfortunate perfection with a voiceover narration of a still photograph that, on film, lacks the body language, facial expression, gestures and intimate context that make narrating photos in person a living experience.

Overall, Bitton’s camera works as a protective lens shielding the audience from the event rather than being a window into a profound inquiry about solidarity.

Rachel will be featured at the ninth annual Chicago Palestine Film Festival, 16-29 April 2010. Click here for ongoing coverage from The Electronic Intifada.

Jimmy Johnson is a supermarket employee in southeast Michigan and can be reached at johnson [dot] jimmy [at] gmail [dot] com.