RACHEL – Exclusive Interview with Director Simone Bitton.

7 10 2010

On March 16th, 2003 a young American, Rachel Corrie, died in Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.  This tragic event has forced a new look into an area of the world mostly left to fend for itself.  Award-winning film-maker Simone Bitton took up the challenge and I present you PSD’s exclusive interview with her.

Today, October 8th RACHEL will open in NY at the famed Anthology Film Archives, it’ll have a full week’s run and for more info on the film and tickets click here.

By far one of the most difficult films to get through.  Not because there is any actual violence in the film itself.   As an Israeli-American projects like Simone’s RACHEL, usually cause me grave concern.  Not because I doubt the talent behind the film, but rather the purpose.  I’d read about the film being protested against and felt ‘o great should I take up a project that is merely controversial’.  Instead I decided that I’ve never truly felt comfortable writing off a film unless I’ve taken the time to actually see it.   My usual research into films is extensive and for this it was no different.  So I hope you’ll understand that even though you may have bias one way or the other in the issues that engulf Israel.  This issue of Rachel’s death isn’t something to just debate and passover the fact that she didn’t have to die.  That is the overwhelming image that haunts this film, no matter your political, religious, and cultural feelings a young woman is no longer with us.

I don’t present this story wanting you to change your views, I’d rather allow you the chance to hear what the director has to say.  I was able to interview Simone by email and I have simply copied and pasted that email here.  No story is complete until you actual sit down and struggle through it.  Due to the massive amount of questions I had for Simone, only some of the questions were answered.  I present the ones that were about the film RACHEL and about Simone’s background.  I hope to chat again with Simone in the near future and discuss her full career.  As usual I’ll let you all in on that.  So sit down, relax and meet Simone Bitton.

1. Please tell me a bit about your childhood in Morocco, then the move to Israel and your teenage years there? Would you tell about your time in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and then about your move to France in your later years?

I was born and raised up in Rabat, Morocco, in a traditional Moroccan Jewish family. My father was a gold jeweler, my mother raised five children. My family emigrated to Israel in 1966 and established in Jerusalem. I went to high school in Israel, then to the army, like all Israeli teenagers.

In Morocco, I went to French school, but we also spoke Arabic at home , and we prayed in Hebrew. In Israel, Hebrew became the main language, but I continued to read and think in French, to sing and joke in Arabic, and I stopped praying! I was a soldier during the kippour war, October 73. I was serving in a hospital, and I saw blood and death. I know this turned me into a pacifist for the rest of my life.

After the army, I left Israel with a backpack, I travelled in Europe, hitchhiking, it was the hippy time. When I arrived to Paris, I started to see films. I fell in love with Cinema, with the city, and with a French man,and I made my life there. But I cross the Mediterranean see several times a year. Paris is a very convenient

base for me as: its half the way between Rabat and Jerusalem. I have three cultures, three countries, and I consider it as a great asset and a rare privilege in a world where millions of people are stateless.

2. You graduated from IDHEC (L’Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques), what was your experience like in such a well-known cinema school?

School is the place where you can experiment freely and do all the things that most producers and broadcasters will try to prevent you from doing later on. IDHEC was such a free school at the time, and it gave me a lot of strength. Lately I started to teach at a new and wonderful film school in Marrakech, Morocco. I am trying to transmit to my students this approach of cinema, especially documentary cinema – as a territory of freedom.

5. In the WALL and in RACHEL, your presence is felt as merely an off-screen voice usually asking simple questions or commentary on the images? How earlier on did you decide to use this technique and why?

The decision to be off screen was not new, I never appeared on screen in my films. What changed is more that I decided to keep my questions in the editing. In television, you could do a voice over, but we were always told to cut the questions , and I never liked that, there was something not honest in it, like if the characters were talking alone in monologues, and not engaged in conversations or in interviews with the director. You don’t see me in WALL nor in RACHEL, but I am very present. The Voice is very physical. I think you really feel the person when you hear the voice, and you might even feel the presence more when you don’t see the person’s face or body. You listen better when you don’t see. Also, as I am doing films where I am all the time crossing walls, cultures and languages, I feel its important that the viewer can hear my voice asking questions in Hebrew and in Arabic in the same film. Then he knows that the film is made by somebody that cannot be put in a drawer immediately. He cannot say: its a film made by a Jew, or its a film made by an Arab. Also, he can feel how these two languages resemble each other – and this is also something important which is brought to the films by my voice.

9.When did you first hear about Rachel Corrie, and when did you look into making a film about her death?

I heard about her the day she was killed. I was in Ramallah, working on a daily program of short films for Channel Four, and also preparing WALL. It was on the news. I was shocked and moved, like everybody around me, because it was the first time that a young foreign peace activist was killed by the Israeli Army. Others have been killed since, but Rachel was the first one, so there was that feeling that a red line had been crossed. But I didn’t think at all of making a film about it. I was very focused on making WALL at the time. My motivation to address Rachel’s story came later, it was not a reaction to the first emotional impact of her death, not at all.

10. How long did the film take to finish? How much footage was shot by your

camera crew, security cameras, and other camera shots?

Its about three years of work. I didn’t count the percentage of footage which was not filmed by me and my crew and was kept in the editing. Maybe 20% or 30%. That’s a lot, and it has been a challenge for me in the editing process, to integrate so much materials from external sources in my own film rhythm.

11. When and where were the interviews with the activists done and what did you learn from those candid interviews?

I travelled to meet them where they live, in the US and in the UK. I met them several times, I didn’t come to film immediately. It takes time to make such a film, to establish relations of trust. At the beginning, some of them were suspicious. This is a generation of activists who dont trust media, and they don’t always see the difference between documentary film-making and media. I had to exist as a person and as an artist, show my previous films, talk a lot

about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. I learned from them, and

they learned from me. I think its the right way to do films. Take your time, and exist as a person for your characters.

12. You made a bold choice to show Rachel’s corpse, how did the footage come to you and what was the discussion process of whether to show it or not?

The photos were taken by Richard and by Joe, two witnesses, Rachel’s friends who were with her in Rafah and could have been killed like she was killed. They gave me the negatives and I used some in the film. The video footage was filmed by Palestinian cameramen at the Hospital in Rafah. These are professional cameramen who work either for foreign or local press agencies. I got the footage from Ramatan Palestinian News Agency. There was no discussion process whether to show it or not. I didn’t hesitate, because that’s

what my film is all about, and Rachel’s family had no objections. For me it is not the image which is a scandal, it is the killing, and the killing has to be seen and investigated. My work would not have had any meaning if I had averted my eyes from these images. But it was important to address the element of obscenity that this kind of images can contain, no matter how careful you are with the way you edit them. Richard, who took one of these photos, presents it himself in the film. He says he felt guilty about it when he took it, but he also felt that he has to take it because evidence was needed. I would add that for me, the most unbearable moments in the film are not those when Rachel is dead.

It is when she is alive, when she dances, when she smiles, that I feel the loss of her young life and the obscenity of her killing.

14. You were able to talk with a representative of the IDF and also the doctor who performed the autopsy of Rachel. Both stated that in their findings Rachel died from suffocation due to a heavy object applying pressure to her body. The autopsy doctor even explains that the actual bulldozer couldn’t have “run over” Rachel, but that the blade or debris is more than likely the heavy object. These findings go against the doctor and pharmacist reports seen earlier in the film. Obviously this is an on-going debate and one of the main issues of the tragic death. The only intriguing portion that is not showcased is the actions of the US Embassy. Did you contact them for an interview?

Of course I contacted the US Embassy, not once but many times, and I insisted very much for having their reaction – but they wouldn’t talk, they wouldn’t answer, they wouldn’t react. It is very annoying. But what is more annoying is that the US Embassy never gave a clear answer on this point to Rachel’s family! Its now seven years that Rachel’s parents are seeking the truth, and the US administration is not even able to explain why there was no US representative during the autopsy, although the parents allowed the autopsy

only on this condition!

15. I must admit I went into your film with my own bias. I am an Israeli-American and have viewed the tragic death of Rachel through those bias eyes. I must commend you on your film having the ability to showcase both sides.

The one concern and issue I had from the film was based on the usage of a single word. In the film, the area of Rafah and in the interviews with the young activists it is stated when they were last in Palestine. Now this may seem minor, but the usage of a land that is not currently in existence does showcase a form of being bias. I’ll use myself as the example. When I hear the word it leads me to believe that you don’t say Israel, because you view that area as not Israel. This issue of a lack of recognition of the state of Israel has been around for 70 plus years (since 1948). It is a deep cutting issue to hear that the surrounding nations do not recognize the state of Israel and thus the terrorist acts that occur against the country are not wrong. I know this doesn’t sum up the debate at all, but I am curious if this was an issue that was ever discussed?

Well, I am an Israeli myself and I can assure you that Rafah is not in Israel. And I can also assure you that Palestine is a reality, just like Israel is a reality. So, yes: Rachel and her friends came to Palestine ( ISM is only active in the West Bank and in Gaza. The only place Rachel saw in Israel is Ben Gurion Airport, she went from there directly to East-Jerusalem, and from there to Gaza).

16. Groups of people protested against at the showing of your film at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where Rachel’s mother was at the screening. What would you say to the people that think your film is biased and possibly a piece of propaganda?

The people who protested against my film at the SFJFF didn’t see the film. They made a fool of themselves attacking a film that they haven’t seen. So there’s not much I can say to them, except: Go see the film, and then lets talk about who is doing propaganda here. Any serious viewer would convene that RACHEL is a very rigorous and well-documented film inquiry. It brings out all the versions of the story, including the official Israeli version, and it brings it out at length. Maybe this is what they don’t like about it? It is very sad, because what these lobbies are doing is a real threat to Jewish intelligence, pluralism, and humanism.

17. The film ends with a personal “rap” that showcases the young man’s own feelings of the issue of Rachel’s death. Why did you choose to end with this and what is its significance?

The young man who sings at the end is one of the eyewitnesses of Rachel’s death. He wrote this song and made the drawings that I am using on the film’s end credits in the course of a healing process after being traumatized. The

song and the drawings are naïve, colorful, and for me it is a way to end the film with energy rather than with rough despair and mourning. The song comes together with the end credits, and my intention was that the viewer will read the credits and get out of the film with this feeling of youth, rhythm, energy et colours. I might have been mistaken, at least for what concerns the American audience, because here people listen to the song and analyze the lyrics – and don’t read the credits!

Today, October 8th RACHEL will open in NY at the famed Anthology Film Archives, it’ll have a full week’s run and for more info on the film and tickets click here.

For more information on Simone please click here.

For more information about the movie on Woman Make Movies.

And the imdb page for the film as well.


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