A hushed, solemn investigation, Simone Bitton’s documentary about the death of 23-year-old American peace activist Rachel Corrie—who was crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on March 16, 2003, while protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes—still speaks loudly and unequivocally. Born in Morocco, the filmmaker, an Arab Jew with dual Israeli-French citizenship, presents all sides of the horrific incident: from the activist’s fellow members in the nonviolent, Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement—who, as eyewitnesses, insist that she was deliberately run over—to Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson Avital Leibovich, who maintains that Corrie’s death was an accident (with slides and other documentation to argue her case). Bitton, thorough in her research, shows but never tells, letting the evidence speak for itself.
Though radically different in tone from Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story, Rachel is another withering assessment of the culture of military juggernauts. Bitton, best known for her 2004 nonfiction film Wall, about the barrier Israel is building along its border with the occupied territories of the West Bank, questions her interviewees calmly and dispassionately (though her voice is heard, she is never seen). It’s a strategy that yields damning revelations: His back to the camera, one anonymous Israeli soldier who was stationed in Rafah at the time of Corrie’s death admits to the boredom and indifference that led him and other comrades to randomly shoot at homes and water sources. Beyond the specific horror of Corrie’s demise, Bitton quietly yet unmistakably foregrounds the ongoing nightmare of Israel’s occupation.
To illuminate her titular subject, Bitton spends time with Corrie’s ISM cohorts, American and British twentysomethings—some who read from the former Evergreen State College student’s eloquent diary entries and letters to family and friends, and one who commemorates her in a startlingly earnest (and undeniably goofy) rap. As a testament to Corrie’s convictions, Bitton’s interviews with her fellow travelers are a moving tribute to youthful idealism, courage—and sense of perspective. ISM activist Alice recalls that her friend’s corpse had to be removed quickly from the operating table because of rapid turnover: A Rafah resident who had stepped outside his home for a cigarette was killed by sniper fire almost immediately after Corrie was run down, she says. Corrie’s friends, like Bitton, insist that the tragedy in Rafah is much greater than the death of one American protester—a protester who, writing home, was fully aware of the freedoms and privileges that co-existed with her political and moral outrage: “I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends. But I want this to stop.”