Choosing between Justice and Oppression: An Interview with Simone Bitton (WEB EXCLUSIVE)
by Howard Feinstein
Simone Bitton is that rare documentarian, a political activist with the eye and ear of a gifted director. As she had done in Wall (2004), which probed the ramifications of the concrete barrier the Israeli government erected between its citizens and West Bank Palestinians, in Rachel (2009) she applies a light, almost lyrical touch to a socially charged issue. Here it is the 2003 death of twenty-three-year-old American peace activist Rachel Corrie, who used her body as an obstacle in a nonviolent protest by the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes in Gaza by the Israeli military. A Caterpillar D9R armored bulldozer ran her over. Though she thoroughly examines the case, Bitton uses it in part to analyze the larger conflict.
The film begins and ends with the reading of Rachel’s e-mails to friends and family back home in Washington State. In between we learn about her expanding social consciousness and her commitment to justice for the Palestinians. Bitton, whose questions we hear but who remains off-camera, occasionally deploys graceful tracking shots, as if to suggest a search for truth. These work in tandem with the necessarily more static talking heads, which are sometimes shot straight-on, symmetrically. The latter speak for both the official Israeli government position and the opposing one of teachers in Washington, witnesses, and friends, as well as fellow members of the ISM. Although Bitton, a fifty-five-year-old Israeli citizen and ex-soldier who grew up in Morocco and divides her time between Israel and France, doesn’t attempt to mask her own antigovernment stance, she is never intrusive: she lets the evidence speak for itself. One example: the long gap in an official videotape of the incident just at the point the driver hits Rachel.
An Israeli Defense Force (IDF) spokeswoman calls the incident an accident, claiming that the young woman suffocated from the sand the bulldozer dug up, while the Palestinian doctor who treated her at the scene and the local pharmacist maintain that she was killed, deliberately, by the vehicle’s sharp blade. The head of the military police investigation reports that soldiers “covered for each other,” and that, ultimately, it becomes a matter of choosing which side to believe. The official government report states that the death was a result of “the protesters’ reckless behavior.” The U.S. Embassy refused Rachel’s parents’ request to have a representative present at the autopsy.
In one poignant scene at the end of the film, Israeli activist Jonathan Pollack, whose home served as a refuge for ISM members who followed her body to Tel Aviv, tells Bitton, “In revolt there is great truth, whether or not it succeeds,” citing the doomed Jews of the Warsaw ghetto as a model. This could be the director’s epitaph for an idealistic woman who died, unnecessarily, far too young.
The first section of the following interview was conducted in person in New York in April 2009. (The film had premiered in Berlin that February.) We did the follow-up interview session via e-mail in July 2010. In the interval, Women Make Movies acquired the rights to distribute Rachel in the U.S., where it will open in October at the Anthology Film Archives in New York.
The WMM pickup was courageous in light of the events surrounding a screening of the film at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in the summer of 2009. Bitton could not attend, but Rachel’s mother, Cindy Corrie, attended in her stead and addressed the capacity audience afterward. Although the film, along with Cindy Corrie, were roundly applauded, the event was anticlimactic in light of the lead-up to it. Citing objections to the projection by some in the Jewish community, in particular the Koret and Taube Foundations, which contribute funds to the festival, the SFJFF decided to screen Rachel anyway, yet made an absurd concession: It would be preceded by an introduction by Dr. Michael Harris, a founder of the grass-roots pro-Israel advocacy group SF Voice for Israel, to provide “perspective”—no matter that Dr. Harris had not seen the film.
The Koret Foundation released a statement condemning the festival for the screening, for partnering with two peace organizations, Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee, both of which it considers “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic,” and for inviting “bereaved mother” Cindy Corrie to address the audience; it also threatened to withhold future funding. The controversy resulted in the replacement of the festival’s executive director. Bitton was appalled at the strong reaction of some powerful American Jews and Jewish organizations to her investigative film, and she talks about the fiasco in part two of the interview.
Cineaste: How did you become involved in the subject of Rachel Corrie?
Simone Bitton: It’s very complex, the motivation. When you choose a subject, it means that you are going to live with it for two to three years. Some of the motives are cultural, and some I discovered only after I finished the film. She was twenty-three when she died, and I am fifty-three. Then you have reasons of moral conscience. I wanted to make a film about Gaza. For Wall I couldn’t go to Gaza. They don’t want films to be done there. They don’t want the media there—so we have to go! [Laughs]
Plus I wanted the challenge of how to make a cinematic documentary. I wanted to find a new way to deal with people talking, so that it wouldn’t be just talking heads. I love the talk. I wanted to address the situation of interviews, the situation of concentration, in documentaries. I wanted to work on that: I don’t want people to say, “It’s only talking heads.”
Cineaste: Some documentarians are going to the other extreme and making manic films, because they think talking heads are too boring.
Bitton: I wanted to do a real investigation, to go on the ground and find things that people don’t know. The whole investigation done by the Israeli army: any time they are accused of violating human rights, they say, OK, there will be an inquiry, but nobody is ever punished. I wanted to do an investigation into the case, but I wanted also to make an investigation of the investigation. I was not at all aware that it had been so controversial in the U.S. I was just choosing a subject that talked to me. I was not aware of all the behind-the-scenes news.
Cineaste: I like the formal components of your work, especially the camera movement. Do you use a Steadicam, or are they tracking shots?
Bitton: Oh, no, we don’t have Steadicam shots, just a good cameraman.
Cineaste: Like in Jonathan Pollack’s house [where Rachel’s friends go after her death, taking her backpack]. There are several other examples of that, the formal analog of a search.
Bitton: Somebody died, and she has been in those places. What do you have for such a thing? You have talking heads, you have some photos, you have some very bad-quality images, and you have the places where it happened, from the house that she was protecting, which is now ruined, but you go there anyway, and the house where this rucksack arrived, which is now empty. In cinema, you go to a place, even if it’s ugly, like this apartment where she had her training. It’s nothing. There’s nothing to see there, but this was her life.
Corrie with a Palestinian family
Cineaste: It also makes her more of a person. Your position on the issue seems to be clear. What is your attitude toward balance in a documentary?
Bitton: Let’s talk about balance. A film should not be neutral. If you try to be neutral, you make a very bad film. It can’t emerge from emotion. Being exact has nothing to do with being neutral. When I film somebody, I respect him or her. They trust me, that what they have to say will be said. This is not balance. I try to bring in as many different points of view as I can. My job is to look for contradictions.
Cineaste: You give time to the IDF spokesperson and the autopsy forensics expert. You let them speak for themselves, and you let the evidence speak for itself.
Bitton: I just want the chance. If they have convincing arguments, I will not cut them out. You have to be honest in your investigation. But people in power get completely hooked when you give them the floor. They bury themselves. This is not balance.
Cineaste: I’ve heard a couple of other American Jews say that your film is not balanced. We have CNN for that!
Bitton: Someone has been killed. There is no balance in this story. I cannot adapt myself to people like that. I adapt to traumas, to peoples’ suffering. I don’t respect this kind of stupidity. They say you are not balanced when what they really want to say is, “You don’t think like me.”
Cineaste: In both Wall and Rachel, you maintain an off-screen presence. Just your voice is heard.
Bitton: First of all, I think being present with the voice is really being there. You feel the person when the voice is there. In my earlier work, I was quite free, but there were some rules around which I had to work. One was to cut the questions. [Laughs] I always found that very frustrating. It’s more honest to include the questions. It’s a conversation, not a monolog. Something real and strange is happening, so why cut out the questions? Some people say that when you have the questions, it’s like television. I include the questions because it’s the reality of the situation, of the interview, of the conversation. Although I am really asking questions, it’s not that I’m saying what I feel. It’s not a voice-over. I’m asking.
Cineaste: You’re a purist.
Bitton: [Laughs] Exactly.
Cineaste: Another thing I like is that you go off on tangents. Your filmmaking is not linear. For example, you include the history of the ISM for background for those of us who don’t know so much about the organization. The film is not just about the tragic story of this young woman. Not to belittle her, but she’s also a point of departure for you to talk about some other things, including the history of the ISM, even an interview with its Palestinian founder.
Bitton: I always want to know why others don’t help these people. He is in a situation that is so hard, so violent. To launch a group of nonviolent resisters is very meaningful. What he says about responsibility is very noble. He says that they all signed papers in a court, that he is not responsible for her death, but in his heart he feels it. The IDF spokesperson does not feel responsible. The soldiers don’t feel responsible. But this one, who didn’t kill her, he does feel responsible. And there is the question: Who is this group? Who are these Palestinians who send them out there?
Cineaste: The film traces the evolution of Rachel’s political consciousness, but isn’t she a bit naïve?
Bitton: In the beginning, she writes, No documentary could have prepared me for the reality. She learns a lot.
Cineaste: Except for the rap song, you end the film with Rachel saying, “This was one of the best things I’ve done in my life.” It’s heartbreaking. Another moment that is quite moving is after the autopsy, when they bring in a Palestinian who was killed, and you say, “Nobody’s going to make a documentary about him.”
Bitton: Sometimes you have to open up. It would have been obscene to make a film only about Rachel Corrie and not the others. One of the girls wanted to say that, but she was too polite. I felt I had to finish her sentence. It had to be said, because it’s part of the complexity. One must think about the nonwhite civilians.
Cineaste: You can see how bored these young soldiers are. They talk about having fun at night, and letting out the Palestinians’ stored water. They are just killing time.
Bitton: I like the interview with the young soldier very much. He even says, which is horrible, “I might do it again.” He touched me a lot. Maybe it’s because I’m Israeli. He could be my brother.
Cineaste: It’s like complaining about the policemen instead of the people in power.
Bitton: He is traumatized. He is tortured about it all the time.
Cineaste: Why is Rafah such a dangerous town?
Bitton: The soldiers are told it’s a jungle, that there are no rules. The population of Gaza is ninety-nine percent very poor. More than sixty percent are refugees. It’s not like Ramallah or other parts of the West Bank. Everything is allowed, including shooting at houses all night.
Also, the settlers in Gaza were very, very tough. It has not been easy to be there for twenty years. This is why the Israeli government is more violent about human rights and the laws of war in Gaza. There is nowhere for the Gazans to go. You cannot run away. It’s an encircled population. Their lives don’t count.
Cineaste: In spite of the cuts in that official videotape, do you think that the killing of Rachel was intentional?
Bitton: Yes and no. I don’t think that there was an order to kill her. I’m pretty sure of that. I also don’t think the driver thought, “I’m going to kill her in cold blood.” It could have happened two hours, or two days, before. I think it’s more that he was not supposed to pay attention. Nobody expected him to be careful. It just happened. It’s a miracle that it hadn’t happened before. But when you see what such an action looks like [the videotape], it is so dangerous. The only way that nobody would have been killed is if they had stopped the mission.
If there are hostages in a school, does that mean you have the right to kill the whole school? That’s exactly the point: The lives of the Palestinian civilians are worth nothing, and the lives of the people who protect the Palestinian civilians are worth nothing. It’s very sad.
Cineaste: They tear the houses down whether people are inside them or not?
Bitton: The spokesperson [for the IDF] still says, five years later, “We will not destroy these houses,” which is a lie.
Cineaste: Why did the U.S. Embassy refuse Rachel’s parents’ request to have someone present at the autopsy?
Bitton: I asked the embassy, and they never responded. I tried so much to get a reaction from them. They didn’t want to talk to me. They would say, “It’s not the same officer, it was five years ago,” nobody would talk to me. The whole U.S. Embassy thing: something went wrong there.
Cineaste: Now you’re dealing with a situation where your sales agent has not been able to make a sale.
Bitton: For Wall, it took more than a year to find a distributor. It had won awards, it was in Cannes. I wouldn’t be so paranoid on political grounds. It is very hard to find a distributor for a documentary.
Cineaste: But your sales agent told me distributors are afraid of it.
Bitton: OK, I won’t say no, but it’s not only that. I think that if a distributor felt he could make good money, he would take the film. All I can say is that I hope there will be a brave distributor. I think that he will not lose money, because I think that the film will talk to a lot of people in the U.S., especially to the young. It is an important film about youth, it is important about the commitment of young people.
Regarding these people who pretend they are speaking in the name of all Jews, I think we will not be intimidated, because this is simply not true. I think it is better for American citizens to hear the Middle Eastern story from us.
Facing down a bulldozer in Gaza
Cineaste: Isn’t there a tradition within Judaism of self-criticism? In Israel, people criticize the government. It seems that the thinking is, as soon as you do it in front of the non-Jews, it’s wrong.
Bitton: In Israel, when you are a Jew you can say anything. But you have to be a Jew. [Laughs] I think I’m a better Jew than those Jews who work through intimidation. If this is true, that my film will not be distributed in the U.S. for this reason, it’s a really ugly thing about the Jewish community in the U.S. I hope it is not so monolithic. I don’t know, here we are talking, you are a Jew, I’m a Jew, I’ve been talking to Jewish journalists, half of the audience is Jewish.
Cineaste: I’m not sure about the mentality of the average American Jewish viewer.
Bitton: I’m not working for spectators.
Cineaste: What’s happened with the film in Israel?
Bitton: Nothing yet. But the film will be shown in Israel. I will take it to the Haifa Film Festival. In Israel all of my films have been shown in cinematheques and in festivals, and sometimes TV will take them. The problem is economic. It’s a very small market.
Cineaste: What are your thoughts about what happened in San Francisco, at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and how some American Jews responded?
Bitton: Although I have a long experience with irrational reactions when it comes to Middle Eastern issues, and although this was not the first time I was attacked in the U.S. for daring to address the topic of the Israeli Army’s violation of human rights, I must confess that I didn't expect that it could happen at the SFJFF. Not only because the SFJFF has always been—and still is—a great space of freedom, pluralism, and dialog among Jews, but mainly because Rachel is a very rigorous and well-documented film inquiry. It is simply an unattackable film, because it brings out all the versions of the story, including the official Israeli version, and it brings it out at length. I have shown other films at the SFJFF—Wall and Mahmoud Darwish (1998)—and nothing of this kind happened either time. After thinking about it, I reached the conclusion that all this fuss had nothing to do with the film itself, as the whole controversy was initiated and led by people who hadn’t seen it.
It was really ridiculous. These people were against the very fact that the SFJFF selected a film inquiring about Rachel Corrie's death, and against the very fact that Rachel's mother was invited to meet the audience as a participant in the film. Their anger came out of political frustration, because since Obama's election, the pro-Israeli lobbies in the U.S. are afraid of losing their monopoly on Jewish public opinion, and on American public opinion in general. There is a will to silence what Rachel symbolizes in the U.S., and that is the very notion of solidarity with Palestinians. The pro-Occupation lobbies are very unhappy with the fact that more and more young Americans, Jews and non-Jews, engage in solidarity actions with Palestinian civilians. There is also, probably, a kind of desperation in these conservative groups, because they feel threatened by the hints that the new administration is determined to change things in the Middle East. So they decided to do all that they can—and they can do a lot, they are very powerful—to cut people like me away from my Jewish audience, just as they are working to silence so many Jewish artists, scholars, and peace activists all over the world, but especially in the U.S.
These lobbies are a real threat to Jewish intelligence, pluralism, and humanism.I feel that it is very important, especially now, not to be intimidated by this aggressiveness. American Jews have a great responsibility these days: they have to help Obama in his efforts to bring peace and justice to the Middle East.There is a slight hope now that things will move in the right direction, but this hope is fragile. Jews have to be the first ones to criticize what has to be criticized in Israel’s politics, and the best way for them to do it is by supporting the Israeli voices that stand against the Occupation. If they surrender themselves to the pressure, like the pressure being put upon the SFJFF, how can they expect President Obama to resist the much heavier pressure he is confronting from the military and industrial lobbies, which need the continuation of war and the Occupation for their own interests?
Corrie's parents at a memorial wall dedicated to their daughter
It’s time that American Jews make a clear choice, and stop letting these ignorant censors dictate what is good and what is bad for Jews. Because it is the choice between life and death. Between justice and oppression. Between pride and shame. I know that many feel the right way. But they have to say it out loud more strongly than they already do. This is what happened at the SFJFF: the Festival didn't surrender, the screenings of Rachel were packed, and, for the first time, many hundreds of American Jews said no to Jewish censorship. My only sadness is that Cindy Corrie, who is a wonderful and very noble person, had to go through this awful event. I couldn't be with her to face the ugliness of the attacks on her and on her daughter's memory. I was naïve enough to assume that Jews would not sink so low as to insult a mother who lost a child and seeks the truth.1
Cineaste: What about the accusations that Rachel and her friends were helping to hide tunnels to Egypt, not protect homes?
Bitton: That’s so silly that even the Israeli Army's spokesperson never used such an argument. Rachel was protecting the house of a pharmacist. I filmed the ruins of the house, and there was no tunnel there. The Israelis destroyed thousands of houses in Rafah in 2002-2003. They created a no-man's land where there had been lively civilian neighborhoods. Most of the tunnels were dug years after, when the blockade on the Gaza Strip forced the population to find ways to smuggle goods inside. That was after the Israeli Army and the Israeli settlers left Gaza, and after the election of Hamas. People have short memories, and documentary films can help them put some order in all the propaganda they are fed.
Cineaste: How has the international distribution of the film gone? I heard a commercial film was bumped from a Paris theater recently so they could show Rachel instead.
Bitton: It was selected by many prestigious festivals and had good reviews, but it didn't sell well internationally. Feature-length documentaries of this kind don’t sell well. But I can’t complain. It worked OK in the European countries where it has been distributed theatrically. The DVD was released last week, and it began well. In France, where I live and where my work is known and generally respected, it did well when in was released last October. Recently, some cinemas decided to show it again after the assault on the peace flotilla, because suddenly people started to ask, “Who are these international peace activists who try to help the people in Gaza and get killed by the Israeli army?” The film was a premonition of what was to come, so it might have a second life now. It will open in the U.S. soon, thanks to Women Make Movies. WMM’s Debbie Zimmerman is one of those brave Jews who are fed up with Jewish censorship. But I live these things from afar. When a film is done, I go on with my life and with my projects. I don’t reply to stupid attacks. I make films, I see films, I teach filmmaking. These days I am in Morroco, my native land, teaching in a wonderful film school in Marrakech. I love my students. I have things to transmit. The people who try to silence me cannot even imagine how meaningful and wonderful it is to make films out of love for cinema, for human beings, and for truth. We don’t live on the same planet. My favorite quotation is Godard’s saying, “Cinema is a country apart, another territory on the world's map.”
Cineaste: Are you working on a new project? If so, can you tell me a little about it?
Bitton: I am currently doing research for a three-part historical documentary about my origins: Moroccan Jews. It’s not going to be a schmaltzy nostalgic film. I suppose it will cause a lot of controversy as well. That’s all I can say about it for now!
1 In 2006 the New York Theatre Workshop dropped the one-woman play My Name Is Rachel Corrie, which had opened in London, succumbing to Jewish protests. It was staged later the same year by the smaller Minetta Lane Theatre.
Howard Feinstein reviews films for Screen, Filmmaker, and indieWIRE and programs fiction, documentaries, and directors’ retrospectives for the Sarajevo Film Festival. He lives in New York.