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Interview | “Rachel” Director Simone Bitton

Interview | "Rachel" Director Simone Bitton

“Rachel” by Simone Bitton is a rigorous, fascinating and moving investigative documentary that examines the death of peace activist and International Solidarity Movement (ISM) member Rachel Corrie, who was crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003. A few weeks after her little-reported death, an inquiry by Israeli military police concluded that Corrie died in an accident.

Simone Bitton (“Wall”), an award-winning documentary filmmaker who is a citizen of both France and Israel, has crafted a dispassionate but devastating essay investigating the circumstances of Rachel Corrie’s death. Bitton captures the spirit of Rachel’s youth, idealism, and political commitment amidst sweeping landscapes of Gaza and a portrait of daily life under ever-present military aggression. The film is currently playing at New York’s Anthology Film Archive and is being released via Women Make Movies (WMM).

Bitton makes her intros…

I was born in Morocco as a Morrocan Jew in 1955. I immigrated with my family to Israel when I was 11 years old, became an Israeli citizen, then in the late ’70s I went to France where I studied at Paris cinema school IDHEC. I became a French citizen in 1980 and have been making documentary films since.

Most of my films – even when I was working for French public television – were personal projects, dealing with Middle-Eastern or North African issues. I am trying to better represent the history, the culture, and the societies which I know, where I come from, and which are usually misrepresented in the Western world. My work spans portrayals of musicians , poets & political figures like Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich, or Moroccan leader Mehdi Ben Barka to investigations like “Rachel” and through personal meditations like “Wall” (2005).

I think I became a filmmaker because, as Jean-Luc Goddard once said, “Cinema is a country apart, another territory on the map of the world.” I don’t like walls nor borders. I consider my films as bridges between people, specially between Jews and Arabs but also, more generally, between Orient and Occident.

How Bitton became motivated by Corrie’s story…

I was very moved by Rachel Corrie’s death. I was in the West Bank the day she was killed, preparing “Wall” and I felt that a new red line had been crossed in our long path to more and more violence and horror. It was the first time a young foreign peace activist had been killed by the Israeli Army and for sure it was a frightening development. But I didn’t think of making a film about it at the time.

So many people get killed all the time there, and there’s no films about them, so why make a film about the only American victim when there are so many anonymous Palestinian victims? It is only some years later, after I realized that her death has never been seriously investigated, though it raised so many passions that it became a challenge for me.

[I decided to] film the place where she was killed, collect documents and testimonies, record all the versions of the event, put them all together in a film and then let the viewer make his own way through the contradictions and the repetitions.

“Rachel” is not a biopic. It is somehow “using” – with utmost respect – the character and the story of Rachel Corrie as a metaphor for a whole system of misrepresentation of current events in the Middle East. It is both an investigation, and an inquiry into the lack of investigation when it comes to current events in the Palestinian territories in general, and especially in Gaza. Gaza is a black hole in the world conscience. It’s a place where filmmakers are not allowed to go, and I believe that documentary filmmakers have to go precisely where they are not allowed to go.

Bitton talks about the challenges of undertaking the story and finally getting it out there…

[The biggest challenges here] of course was the fact that nobody really wanted to hear about it or talk about it. Everything was difficult, but I am a very stubborn person. When the doors are locked I always try to find a way to pass through the windows ..

The US release comes after several European releases, and the film has already been shown in many prestigious festivals (Berlin, Tribeca, Sarajevo, Cinema du Reel). It has also already been broadcast in Israel and screened in several Arab countries.

[The roll outs] went well everywhere, and had respectable scores for such a small film, but of course it is very challenging to bring it now to the US audiences. After all, it is a film about the death of an American citizen, and I know that Rachel Corrie became a kind of icon here for US anti-war movements, while being seen as a red flag by conservative circles and pro-Israeli lobbies in this country.

There have already been controversies about it, for example when it was shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The controversy was initiated by people who haven’t seen the film, so I really don’t know what to expect. I would like people to see the film for what it is: a thorough, deep and serious investigation. It is also a cinematographic essay about youth and commitment, and it is a film which always leaves space for the viewer’s imagination and own ideas. It’s not at all a provocative film. It is very quiet, very serious, and it is more sad than angry.

“Rachel” really doesn’t resemble anything that I have seen [recently]. It talks a lot, which is not the actual trend in documentary! I would say I was more thinking of Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” than about any recent film while working on it.

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