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By By Lynne Rogers
By Simon Bitton
100 minutes, subtitles French, Hebrew and Arabic
Distributed by Women Make Movies, 2009
The Israeli and French filmmaker Simone Bitton has composed yet another powerful documentary with her new film "Rachel." The story begins with Rachel’s fellow activists reading excerpts from her personal journal five years after her death. Bitton’s camera dexterously shifts from the accounts of Rachel’s family, friends, and teachers, to those of the Palestinians living on the Egyptian border in the director’s determination to tell the story of Rachel being squashed to death by an Israeli bulldozer. Rachel, a young idealistic American from Evergreen State College, had been in Gaza for three months working with the anti-violence International Solidarity Movement to stop the Israeli military’s systematic demolition of Palestinian homes. Like most naïve travelers to Gaza, Rachel was shocked by the “degree of evil’’ she witnessed as family homes were repeatedly harassed by nightly gunfire. Bitton also describes the lonely walk of the pharmacist Nasralleh over the ruins of his extended family’s home. The Israeli major and international spokeswoman who accompany him assert that the military had two goals that ill-starred day: to clear the grounds and locate explosive devices. Unlike the activists who give their full name and current location, most of the Israeli military are only referred to by mysterious capital letters.
In what should be seen as a microcosm of the broader Palestinian situation, the Israeli military claims that the bulldozer operator could not see Rachel from inside the bulldozer despite her and her fellow activists’ shouting at the bulldozer to leave. These energetic and ingenuous foreigners used a megaphone to remind the Israeli military that they were foreigners there to protect the Palestinian families. In another form of protest, the activists sat in front of these 65-ton machines, impeding their movement forward. On March 16, 2003, Rachel’s friends on the ground and on-looking villagers claim they witnessed a deliberate murder as the bulldozer proceeded forward and then reversed with its blade still down, running over Rachel’s body. In just another small example of Israeli military genius, the investigating military police arrived at an “erased” crime scene and thus were legally unable to interrogate the soldiers involved as part of their investigation. Bitton continues her painful dialogue as the activists, clearly still shaken, re-examine photos taken that day of a mutilated body splayed on the ground and remember the omnipresent military surveillance videos. Autopsies by both the Palestinians and the Israelis agree that her body suffered multiple fractures and bleeding from the mouth and eyes, which indicated death by asphyxiation. Throughout the film, Bitton’s compassionate camera maintains a respectful distance, creating space for the expression of a subdued but intense emotional response to the death of Rachel, who paid “for her ideals with her life.” With equal respect, Bitton listens to the Israelis’ insistent and problematic refrains. The Israeli Commander praises his men for their “self-restraint,” but one Israeli soldier confides, “We felt awful. But we had orders.”