Fight over Rachel Corrie film rocks S.F. film festival
By Dan Pine and Stacey Palevsky
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SAN FRANCISCO (J. Weekly)—If Academy Awards were handed out for community turmoil, the Rachel Corrie flap at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival would have won handily.
Dissension in the local Jewish community raged in recent weeks over the festival's screenings of "Rachel," a film that investigates the 2003 death of American pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, and the festival's
invitation to her mother, Cindy Corrie, to speak afterward.
The film offers a sympathetic portrait of Rachel Corrie, who was killed at
23 in Gaza while protesting a home demolition in front of an Israeli army
Booking the film and Cindy Corrie for the festival struck a nerve with some
in the Jewish community, who believed the festival crossed a line into
overtly anti-Israel propaganda. Some called for a boycott of the festival,
saying Rachel Corrie, and now her parents, worked to ostracize and
"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?" festival director Peter Stein said during his
introduction of the film July 25 at the opening screening at the Castro
"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."
At the screening, 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.
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.
Penn is the executive director of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and
Culture, one of the festival's sources of philanthropic sources.
The Taube Foundation and the The Koret Foundation, each headed by
philanthropist Tad Taube and self-described as "sister philanthropies,"
issued a joint statement July 21 criticizing the festival for working with
the American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace—"two
virulently anti-Israel, anti-Semitic groups"—in co-presenting the film,
for inviting Cindy Corrie to speak and for booking "Rachel" in the first
Another festival funder raising objections was the CEO of the San
Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation. Daniel Sokatch disagreed with
the decision to invite Corrie to speak but otherwise supported the festival
and its showing of "Rachel."
Stein issued his own July 21 statement apologizing "for not fully
considering how upsetting the program might be," though he added that the
festival stood by its decision to screen the film.
The apology was not good enough for many, who flooded local Jewish leaders
and the local Jewish newspaper with protest letters.
Following the protests, a pro-Israel activist involved with S.F. Voice for
Israel, the Bay Area chapter of StandWithUs, was added as a speaker.
Dr. Michael 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. 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. 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
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 IndyBay.org 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.
One audience member, Laynie Tzena, was disheartened by such a dismissive
audience. She likes to call the Jewish Film Festival "Jewish Pride Week,"
but the hostile crowd reactions.
"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."