This Saturday, July 25th, the movie RACHEL, directed by Simone Bitton will premiere at its first-ever Jewish film festival in San Francisco, California. Simone was born in 1955 in Rabat, Morocco. A Moroccan-Israeli-French Jewish documentary filmmaker, she’s directed a number of films, including Mahmoud Darwich (1998), Citizen Bishara (2001), and Mur (Wall) (2004). Her films have been nominated for and/or won the César Award, the Marseille Festival of Documentary Film Award, and the Sundance Film Festival, Special Jury Prize for Mur.

RACHEL is a film about Rachel Corrie’s work as an American peace activist with the International Solidarity Movement. In 2003, at the age of 23, Rachel was crushed to death by a U.S. made Israeli military bulldozer in Gaza while trying to prevent the demolition of the home of local Palestinian pharmacist Samir Nasrallah.

Peter Stein, Executive Director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival wrote of the film:

Bitton’s quietly persistent questioning manages to accomplish what the inadequate legal proceedings and the overheated press coverage did not: an unflinching examination that refuses to exculpate or equivocate. But Bitton’s nonfiction essay is hardly a bloodless tract—in fact, even as it raises troubling questions about the Israeli military’s candor, it also manages to paint a complex portrait of a young, perhaps naive, idealist and the high price some pay in the name of committed activism.

I caught up with Simone to ask her a few questions before the screening this Saturday. [To be clear: I haven’t seen the film yet, so the questions are geared towards giving readers an opportunity to hear directly from Simone.]

AV: What inspired you to direct RACHEL?

SB: There were contradictory versions about Rachel’s death and no independent investigation was ever made. I felt I might achieve something valuable on the investigative ground, that’s my job as a documentarist, and it’s my first motivation. It was a professional challenge.

On a more personal level, I have been making films about the situation in Palestine/Israel for 25 years. My work is giving tools for a better comprehension of this situation, but it is also an emotional chronicle of the turning points in what this situation does to Palestinians and Israelis.

I am obsessed with it. I keep documenting the conflict, but each time I choose another angle, another cinematic style, and my films are usually very personal. I don’t do films out of a political tactic, for convincing the audience or conveying messages, but as a way to share my feelings, my fears and sometimes my hopes.

So I made a film about Rachel because her killing was an emotional turning point in my emotional perception of solidarity. It was the first time a foreigner was killed while trying to protect Palestinians. A red line had been crossed, and I felt this line was crossed also in my own heart.

I am 53 years old. It’s an age when one starts mourning one’s youth and evaluating one’s own present and past commitments. I have a deep feeling that my generation has failed in protecting the Palestinians, which for me means also protecting the Israelis. I am deeply convinced that by oppressing the Palestinians, we are destroying ourselves as Jews and as human beings.

We didn’t achieve anything. The occupation is more terrible than it used to be, and the Israeli society is destroying itself from inside by adopting more and more violent, paranoiac and racist attitudes. Rachel’s story is a tragic one, it doesn’t have a happy end, but it still lights some hope in the dark. Each word of Rachel Corrie’s writing is a spark of hope and humanism.

AV: Why did you choose not to narrate the film? What cinematic effect do you hope this will have on the viewer?

SB: There’s no narration because it’s a cinematic inquiry. I’m not a journalist. Cinema leaves a space for the spectator’s imagination. The complexity, the contradictions are part of this story, and I want the spectator to take part in the mental work of deconstructing lies and truth. I think the strength of the film is there: that while watching it, a spectator navigates between the versions, and it’s as if s/he is investigating for her/himself. This is particularly important when you are making films about stories, which are passionate, and controversial. And middle-eastern stories usually raise controversy. It is important to me that each viewer will find her/his place in my film, and a narration generally excludes the spectator from the film. S/he becomes passive. I wanted Rachel’s spectators to be active.

AV: Since it’s release in 2008, where has RACHEL screened, and how has it been received across the globe?

SB: The film is still in pre-distribution stage. It has been shown in film festivals. The first theatrical release will be in France, at the end of October. The world premiere was at the Berlinale in February, and it’s also been screened at the Tribeca Film Festival; at the most important documentary event in France, which is the “Cinema du reel” festival at Pompidou Center; and in International Film Festivals in Buenos Aires, Italy, and I probably forget other venues. I have been traveling a lot with the film, and it has been very warmly received everywhere. I am now preparing for the premiere in Israel, which will be at the Haifa International Festival, and in Palestine, at the Ramallah Al Kassaba theater.

AV: This July, RACHEL will be screened during the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Is this the first time RACHEL was accepted to a Jewish film festival?

SB: Yes. Nancy Fishman saw the film at the Berlinale, and asked me to reserve the film to be shown at the SFJFF for its Bay Area premiere, and for its first screening at a Jewish film festival.

AV: I know you won’t be able to join the festival in person for a post-film discussion, and that Cindy Corrie will be speaking instead. Will you be able to join through skype to speak with the audience?

SB: I am always glad to meet the audience, but it’s impossible for me to attend this year. But I don’t like these skype connections. I really don’t think its not necessary, because I believe in my film, I know it speaks for me. Besides, Cindy is a participant in the film. She is a wonderful person and I’m sure the discussion with her will be enlightening.

AV: SFJFF has a long history of showing films about Israel and Palestine, believing that art and film are mediums to open up critical and controversial conversations. This year though, the festival is facing increased scrutiny for not only choosing to screen RACHEL, but for inviting Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s mom, to speak in your absence. I’ve been informed that an aggressive email campaign is currently taking place to boycott, defund and/or condemn the festival. The festival drafted a statement solely for this film, and has now invited another speaker from SF Voices for Israel to address the audience before RACHEL is screened. What’s your response to criticism leveled by Jewish organizations, media and funders prior to the screening this Saturday.

SB: Well, the film is being attacked by people who haven’t seen it! So there’s very little I can respond to about this. It would be ridiculous. I suppose there is a will to silence what Rachel symbolizes in the US, which is precisely this notion of solidarity with Palestinians. The pro-occupation lobbies are very unhappy with the fact that more and more young Americans, Jews or non-Jews, engage in solidarity actions with the Palestinian civilians. And 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 are making a lot of noise, trying to cut people like me from my Jewish audience, as they are working to silence so many Jewish artists, Jewish scholars, Jewish peace activists, all over the world and specially in the US.

They are a real threat to Jewish intelligence, pluralism and humanism. I feel that it is very important, specially now, not to be intimidated by this aggressiveness. American Jews have a great responsibility these days–they have to help the new administration in its efforts to bring peace and justice in the Middle East. There is a real 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 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 more heavy pressure he is confronting, coming from the military and industrial lobbies, who need the continuation of war and occupation for their own interests? 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 the many feel the right way. But they have to say it out loud more massively than they already do.

AV: And of the criticism being directed towards Cindy?

SB: This is too low to even be addressed. All I have to say is that it is shameful to insult a mother who lost a child and seeks the truth.


For more with Simone, check out this in depth interview, “Rorschach “Rachel”” by Andrew O’Hehir on