Rachel Movie Review: The Image As Obscenity and Truth

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While documentaries often compromise their own credibility with an approach to their subject matter less as an investigative pursuit than a predetermined self-fulfilling prophesy, the most skilled nonfiction filmmakers take a chance with treading on unfamiliar, even hostile territory. And allowing people to hopefully reveal unfiltered truths spontaneously.

Such is the case with the impressively crafted Rachel, director Simone Bitton’s both persistent and poetic inquiry into the murder of young International Solidarity Movement (ISM) peace activist Rachel Corrie in Gaza in March 2003. Where she was horrifically crushed to death by an Israeli military armored Caterpillar D9 bulldozer, while defending Palestinian homes poised for demolition. Just 23 years old, the idealistic Washington State student died from asphyxiation as she was buried under mounds of dirt, even though the presence of the activists surrounding the targeted homes was more than evident and made clear in advance.

As the military perpetrators and Israeli government officially claimed the death was an accident – and in any case they had no idea she was an American but rather a ‘white Palestinian’ whose life therefore has less value – Bitton, a Moroccan born Jew, embarked on her own investigation. Rachel’s passionate letters to friends and family filled with intimate lyrical passages highlighting her idealistic commitment to political activism are read by them, with destroyed Gaza urban landscapes as backdrop. As various officials, along with witnesses from both sides, give testimony on camera, interspersed with the only visual evidence of the crime, which Bitton refers to solemnly as ‘the obscenity of the photograph.’

Among the most troubling, is a youthful army veteran previously stationed in Gaza. A religious Jew wearing a skull cap and seemingly too ashamed to face the filmmaker, he speaks with his back to the camera instead. As Bitton gently interrogates the man, he casually details Israeli forced eviction methods. Which apparently include ‘firing at the house a little to see if anyone is at home.’ With some persistence, he admits that they fired a lot, to scare them or even just for fun.

And he goes on to admit that they also fired at the tanks containing precious water for the community, simply because it looked ‘cool,’ in the dark through night vision goggles. And did destroying the water tank or killing people, even women and children for what seems to be the crime of being disrespectful, conflict with his deeply held religious beliefs? Never, is the dispassionate reply. Or at least not until he was discharged from the military. ‘As a civilian, I’m a gentle person, I can’t explain it.’

And though we come to realize through the documentary that the horror of Rachel’s death is but one of multiple routine murders of Palestinians every day, the film is nevertheless not without immense hope. Not only through Rachel’s enduring words on paper, but from Israeli social justice activist Jonathan Pollak as well.

Does Pollak believe one can resist without hope in such a discouraging situation, Bitton inquires. Yes, replies the young movement leader without a moment’s hesitation. ‘Resistance is life, it’s a kind of truth. A passion, a desire. I believe that in revolt, there is great truth, whether or not it succeeds.’

Rachel is being released at the Anthology Film Archives in NYC, 10/8-14. More information is online at wmm.com and anthologyfilm.archives.org.

Women Make Movies

Unrated

4 stars