The late Rachel Corrie (1979 – 2003) was articulate, straightforward and resolute. Her castigation of Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian people and the Israeli Government’s disregard for the safety of Israelis and Palestinians rang with clarity. Through peace activism she ascertained the facts on the ground. She called it as she saw it.
The documentary, “Rachel Corrie: An American Conscience,” chronicles her humanitarian work with the International Solidarity Movement in Rafah, Gaza Strip, just prior to her murder in March 2003. While Corrie stood in front of a Palestinian home to prevent its demolition, an Israeli soldier in a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer crushed her.
Director Yahya Barakat, a professor in the Mass Media and TV Department at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, edited 80 hours of film footage from Gaza, the West Bank and Olympia, Washington for two years. He created a cinematic collage of international voices; people who work for peace and who support the Palestinians in their daily life activities. Through interviews, Barakat presents a collective chastisement of the military occupation, the U.S. and Israeli Governments, as well as U.S. mainstream media.
In Rafah, a walk to school is a life or death situation for Palestinian children when they encounter Israeli soldiers who shoot at them. Even though 100 international, nonviolent demonstrators, who carried posters and a draping banner, walked alongside the children, soldiers responded with gun shots and tear gas. People ran for their lives.
In April 2003 the late British peace activist Tom Hurndall (1981-2004) was in Rafah where he escorted several children to school. Gunfire pervaded the streets. Out of fear some of the children stood immobile. Hurndall rescued them. While he guided a girl to safety, Israeli Sergeant Wahid Taysir shot Hurndall in the head. Nine months later, he died. Immediately after the incident his mother, Jocelyn, traveled to Rafah to find out the truth. On June 26, 2005, the soldier will face the court’s verdict.
Corrie made a conscious decision to travel to Rafah and assess the root-causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Through interviews with her parents, viewers learn about Rachel.
When Rachel was ten, she made a list of her future professions. One of them was a humanitarian activist. Her parents, Cindy and Craig, read her stories about the Holocaust. She composed poems and she constructed crafts for her mother. She loved the Pacific Ocean and it bothered her that the Palestinian children of Rafah had no access to beaches when they were steps away from the Mediterranean Sea.
Her parents’ perception of the conflict changed when they read Rachel’s writings because they did not see this information in U.S. mainstream media. Internationals expressed their shock and their distress at the violence of the occupation. They talked about the peacefulness and the generosity of the Palestinians.
Cindy Corrie said her daughter had a gift for acute observations. In front of the camera, Rachel talked off the cuff succinctly. Her command of language and analysis of the conflict resounded with intelligence. She not only had a sharp mind but she had a deep heart. She was a woman of character and valor.
Barakat uses photo stills to reenact what happened the day she died. The bulldozer treaded the ground and Corrie, in an orange, flack jacket, stood her ground. She would not allow the destruction of a family’s home, people she lived with for several weeks. If they no longer had a house, where would they live?
The Israeli soldier crushed her. Eyewitness accounts concurred that the soldier saw Corrie.
After the incident, the unknown Israeli soldier smiled and waved to witnesses from the cab of his bulldozer. Yet, he would not step out of the bulldozer and face his unarmed victim.
The soldier’s behavior in front of the camera showed his humanity fell to the wayside. The first, Israeli fact-finding report about Corrie’s death was not mealy-mouthed but an outright lie because it stated the bulldozer never touched her. The film shows footage from the cab of the bulldozer and the soldier says: “Dobby to two, I hit an object,” (military terminology for a person). The fact the soldier never came forward publicly demonstrated he learned nothing from his crime because he did not take onus for his actions. While his family, friends and military comrades remain silent, they share the responsibility of this unresolved, heinous crime.
Activists mourned Corrie’s death and they brought carnations to the site. Many speakers emphasized the thousands of Palestinians who died at the hands of Israeli soldiers. While in Hebron, footage shows Israeli soldiers dragged a Palestinian man by his arms and legs and then they banged his face into the ground until he was unconsciousness. Settlers from New York walked the streets with semi-automatic weapons.
Subsequent to the footage are interviews with peace activists, including Hedy Epstein, a Holocaust survivor who believes the persecuted became the persecutors. She recalled a soldier at the Qalandiya checkpoint who told her if she traveled to Ramallah the Palestinians would cut her in half. One settler said he wants peace, so the Palestinians throughout the West Bank should move to Jordan and Tunis. His asinine remarks are not uncommon.
American actor Richard Gere expressed that U.S. citizens, who live in a democracy, should educate themselves, and they should tell the U.S. Government to behave responsibly. He confessed it was heart wrenching “â€¦to see what is happening in this part of the world.”
Although the film gives voice to Palestinian doctors and counselors, it lacks the voice of the average Palestinian. Perhaps the director’s vision was to gain international support and attention through international speakers, but hearing from the victim’s families would illustrate the effects of the occupation’s oppression.
Through these tragedies, Barakat explores the meaning of conscience and how people apply it to their lives. The film has the philosophy that some people commit wrong and some people respond to it with nonviolent resistance. In the end, the viewer is left to decide whether s/he stands by idly with indifference, or s/he stands for the Palestinians’ human rights. It encourages people to think about the soldiers and the settlers who kill Palestinians in cold bold and then live freely. How many Palestinian families lost a loved one and then live with the injustice that the murderer remains unpunished? When will the world show they value Palestinian life just as much as Israeli life? Before there can be peace, these inequalities need resolution.
These questions demonstrate that the film has several interpretations and it addresses the conflict from different perspectives. Moreover, it struck different chords with several audience members. During the screening, some people walked out mumbling comments and it sounded like their beliefs did not concur with what they saw and the views expressed in the film.
For the people who stayed they found out that Barakat’s film was the first documentary screened at the United Nations. His film is under the UN’s consideration as the 2005 Peace Film. If selected, it will have European screenings on November 29, the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Someone dubbed his film the Palestinian Fahrenheit 911. Overall, it ignites an array of feelings from people who stand on all sides of the conflict.
When I asked Barakat why he chose Corrie as the focal point for his film, he said there were three reasons: one, eyewitnesses say it was not an accident; two, when he followed the story in the U.S. they did not talk about Corrie; and three, the American media did not cover her to the extent they cover missing, American children and murders.
“It make me feel inside I must do something for this girl,” he said.
Rachel Corrie’s memory lives on.