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At Festival, Rachel Corrie Film Is a Lightning Rod

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.”

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