Simone Bitton’s Rachel purports to be an only mildly political investigation of an undeniably polemical tragedy: In 2003, an Israeli military bulldozer razing Palestinian houses near the Egyptian border crushed an American activist for the International Solidarity Movement, an event the local police and government predictably deemed an accident. And for the bulk of the running time, the documentary positions itself as a visceral eulogy determined to run blond, courageous Rachel Corrie over with demolition machinery again and again, each time from a distinct perspective; candid interviews with multiple tangential parties form a spectrum of reactions, not only from the talking heads, but from the audience. We nod solemnly at the guilt of the ISM administrator who assigned the site’s crew, despite everyone’s awareness of the imminent peril. We’re intimidated by the few photos of Corrie’s limp, bloody body swaddled in dirt and by the shell-shocked testimony of her fellow protestors. And we narrow our eyes at the bulldozer operator who insists that he was “following orders,” at the autopsy doctor’s matter-of-fact discussion of the technical cause of death, and at the regional army general’s claim that the activists refused to move, thus annulling the troops’ accountability. Indeed, when we’re shown military surveillance footage bearing conspicuously Nixonian edits during the time of the incident, the affair begins to feel blithely conspiratorial.
But inside most activists like Corrie is a prospective martyr, and with good reason; the resulting media coverage from the slaying of a Western bystander often brings national attention, and a recognizable face, to marginalized overseas atrocities. It’s somewhat perverse, then, that Rachel should dote with such grisly punctiliousness on the details of the probable killing, and its subsequently apathetic reception, rather than the nature of the sacrifice. We know from the readings of letters and diary entries that Carrie was in the area protesting Israeli apartheid and defending the human rights of Palestinians; beyond that, however, the film evinces a social vagueness that nearly appears tendentious. We see apartment buildings riddled with bullet holes and hear confessions of cold slaughter from soldiers and locals, but the countless victims suggested by these images languish in ungraspable anonymity. The film never gets around to representing the ideologically oppressive and fatally desultory society Corrie hoped to change for the better.
The officer who presided over the death’s investigation pithily comments, “On the one hand, it’s troubling that a civilian was killed. On the other hand, these soldiers were fighting for their lives whenever they were in this zone.” These words, which at first seem repugnantly non sequitur, are offered to us with ostensible objectivity, but Bitton sandwiches them between blow-by-blow illustrations of the rather unfair advantage a bulldozer wields over human flesh; they’re meant as further evidence for the deflection of blame committed by the “murdering” institution. When we see Palestinian children playing soccer among domestic rubble at the movie’s end, however, the officer’s clumsy point is made persuasively palpable: Before one can politicize Corrie’s death, they must first process the violence that now constitutes normalcy in Gaza. In neglecting to do this, Rachel becomes another socio-political passion play where the crown of thorns is as sadistic as it is meticulous and the sins are as nebulous as they are scattershot. A bulldozer may have crushed Rachel Corrie, but the unacknowledged weight of white man’s burden flattens her video elegy.