Rachel Corrie was an American activist who, while protesting the demolition of Palestinian housing developments in the Gaza Strip, was crushed to death by an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer in early 2003. Three years later, her journal entries and letters home were adapted by actor Alan Rickman into “My Name is Rachel Corrie” a stage play that continues to be performed today. Now those same writings provide the narration for documentary filmmaker Simone Bittone’s film Rachel. Similar to Bittone’s previous film The Wall (winner of the special jury prize at Sundance 2006), Rachel is a cool, even-tempered film about the most heated and emotional conflict of our time.
film sifts through dozens of the people touched by Corrie’s death and
how her earlier experiences propelled her to such dangerous political
activism. Most of the people interviewed are very mindful of the role
they will play in creating or preventing the process of turning Rachel
Corrie into a martyr and carefully package their responses accordingly. A
mournful Palestinian villager credits Corrie with saving several
people’s lives. A resolute Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson provides
mounds of investigatory paperwork requested by the army to better
understand what happened. A representative from the International
Solidarity Movement (ISM, the group Corrie was affiliated with at the
time of her death) demonstrates, in public relations hyperdrive, the
‘entire day’ of training that Corrie received before heading to Gaza.
College faculty members are stricken with their own sense of
culpability. Corrie’s affinity group is still slightly dazed by their
gruesome memories. An anonymous Israeli foot soldier (not present the
day Corrie died but was stationed in the area) talks about the
regularity of war lust and casual destruction. Private investigators are
furious that the crime scene was tampered with and that an autopsy was
performed without the presence of a neutral witness. The Israeli medical
examiner insists that his office called the US Embassy, who in turn
refused to send a representative.
It’s a purposely mundane and hopelessly rhetorical back and forth that will serve mostly to reinforce people’s existing feelings about the players. Intercut with photographs of Corrie, a pretty, blond, American girl who is always framed to look inquisitive or joyful, we are reminded how much the stakes change when an American dies in a foreign war zone. Her letters illustrate an uneasy equilibrium between commitment to the Palestinians’ cause and naivety as to what the conflict really is. There’s a mysterious absence of the dangerlust one might expect considering that, by all accounts, Corrie purposely sought out the most dangerous place in the world to be a direct action resistor.Bitton’s laissez-faire approach breaks a bit for the film’s harrowing finale. The surviving members of ISM bemoan the fact they only had still cameras to document what happened. Had the events been captured by video, they express with rage and regret, the debate would be settled about what transpired--and Corrie may have not died at all. The film closes with surveillance footage shot from another bulldozer, which was positioned to witness Corrie’s death. The operator of this bulldozer, who contacted his emergency dispatch as the events unraveled, narrates. Bitton shows the affinity group the footage and encourages them to narrate it for themselves.
And the ISM members are right; the video footage is a great deal more conclusive than their collection of still images. Yet enough loose ends remain to provide fodder for both sides of the debate. This break in such a constructed style highlights Bittone’s clearest directive in the film; entrenched beliefs (fortified by heated emotions and long-standing grudges) will not be swayed by details of individual tragedies.
Rachel plays at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City starting October 8th-14th.
**Full disclosure: While I never met her personally, I graduated from the Evergreen State College the same year that Rachel Corrie would have, had she completed school.