At Festival, Rachel Corrie Film Is a Lightning Rod

By Stacey Palevsky (J Weekly Via JTA)

Published July 27, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

After weeks of community discord, the controversial “Rachel” documentary screened to an audience often inhospitable to divergent viewpoints.

“What happened to two Jews, three opinions?” asked Laynie Tzena, standing in the Castro Theater after Saturday’s screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. “What happened to respect for dissent?”

Despite festival director Peter Stein’s plea not to interrupt or disrespect any element of the screening, including speakers before or after, many audience members hissed, booed and shouted at those whose opinions clashed with their own.

The booed opinions nearly always were supportive of Israel.

“What bothered me was not the movie, though I didn’t like it, but the audience — there was no respect for the speaker before the film, and offensive comments were made during the movie,” Tzena said. “You cannot shoot people down because you don’t agree [with them].”

People began lining up at the theater more than an hour before the film began, with the line eventually snaking up the street and around the block.

Stein introduced the film, acknowledging the firestorm surrounding the festival’s decisions to screen the documentary about pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie’s 2003 death in Gaza and invite her mother, Cindy Corrie, to answer questions afterward.

“This has become a lightning rod for a tremendous controversy: Is it appropriate for a Jewish film festival to screen a movie critical of the Israeli government?” he asked. “We’re trying to be a model for civic discourse … but what makes for acceptable discourse will not be solved with one movie or one speaker.”

Five days before the screening, festival board president Shana Penn resigned with five months left on a two-year term, citing “healthy differences on how to approach sensitive issues,” though she will remain on the board. Also, following the community protest, festival staff added as a speaker Dr. Michael Harris, a pro-Israel activist involved with S.F. Voice for Israel, the Bay Area chapter of StandWithUs.

Harris spoke for five minutes before the film, but many found it inadequate or did not believe his appearance provided the intended balance.

“[Cindy’s] daughter was killed, so her point of view is far from objective,” said Steve Katz of San Francisco. “Why not invite a panel of diverse opinions? Why not give equal time to all points of view? It was set up to be a hostile situation.”

Harris faced a tough audience before the screening. When he called Corrie’s death an accident, a collective hiss was heard from the crowd. A few shouted “lies.” One man said, “Get off the stage, you’re not welcome.”

A woman yelled back, “Let him speak.”

Harris spoke about eight other Rachels who also died young – at the hands of Islamic and Palestinian suicide bombers.

“All of these Rachels, including Rachel Corrie, should be alive today,” Harris said. “As you watch this film, remember the other Rachels, and remember how much context is missing.”

The audience was quieter during the film itself.

In “Rachel,” director Simone Bitton explored what led Rachel Corrie, a Washington state resident, to become involved in the International Solidarity Movement and travel to Israel and Gaza in January 2003.

Bitton, an award-winning documentarian and a French-Israeli Jew, featured interviews with ISM activists who worked with Corrie in Gaza, Palestinians who hosted the ISM activists, the Palestinian man whose home Corrie was protecting when she was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer, Israeli soldiers, military police investigators, Corrie’s college professors and parents, and the director of Israel’s National Forensic Center, who conducted Corrie’s autopsy.

Much of the film dissected how and why Corrie died on March 16, 2003 at the age of 23. Bitton featured Israeli soldiers reading the transcripts of their testimonies from that day. The five ISM activists on site when Corrie died shared their memories of the day.

Photos and videos of Corrie in Gaza peppered the film, but what really moved the story forward was the narration courtesy of Corrie’s idealistic and heartfelt journal entries and correspondence read by her fellow ISM activists. She wrote often of the violent and inhumane conditions of life in Gaza, and about her deep commitment to the people there.

After the film, Cindy Corrie took the stage, with Stein and later the audience asking her questions.

“I’m surprised by the controversy” my appearance has caused, she said. “I think it has less to do with me and Rachel than the discourse within the Jewish community.”

Harris said after the screening that if Cindy Corrie had not been invited, the Jewish community’s response to screening “Rachel” at the festival would have been wholly different.

“But now that I’ve seen the film, I can certainly say it was appalling for it’s near complete lack of context,” Harris said. “The filmmaker clearly had an agenda. I think she made an effective piece of film making to promote that agenda, which makes it difficult for someone using just spoken word to counter the power of images on a screen.”

Rachel Masters of Palo Alto was stunned and surprised by the audience reaction to Harris’ speech and to the movie.

A self-described “liberal Jew” who is a member of Berkeley’s Beyt Tikkun and the New Israel Fund, Masters was eager to learn more about Corrie’s death and supportive of the festival’s choice to screen the film.

“I never expected such an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel atmosphere,” she said. “That really tainted my ability to take in the movie. I wish I could have watched it at home.”

Faith Meltzer, a member of S.F. Voice for Israel, surmised that the large number of anti-Israel audience members were alerted to the film by a notice on posted by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. The announcement asked people to come and “oppose the Zionists who are trying to shut the movie down and prevent Cindy Corrie from speaking.”

“That’s ridiculous — the Zionists are in the audience,” Meltzer said.

Still, a majority of the crowd seemed to have pro-Palestinian views. More than two-thirds gave the movie a standing ovation. Each time someone said something supportive of the Israeli army or government, the hisses and boos nearly buried the comments.

Tzena was disheartened by such a dismissive audience. She likes to call the Jewish Film Festival “Jewish Pride Week,” but such a scene gave her little of which to feel proud.

“The issue for me is not whether or not to show the film, but how do we treat different points of view, on any side?” she asked. “As a Jew, respect for diverse opinions is vital.”

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.