Written and directed by Simone Bitton; director of photography, Jacques Bouquin; edited by Catherine Poitevin and Jean-Michel Perez; produced by Thierry Lenouvel; released by Women Make Movies. At the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, at Second Street, East Village. In English, Arabic and Hebrew, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. This film is not rated.
“Rachel,” Simone Bitton’s fascinating if uneven documentary about Rachel Corrie, the activist killed in Gaza in 2003, shares a goal with “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” the controversial Off Broadway play from 2006. Both lionize this 23-year-old protester from Olympia, Wash., who was crushed under a mound of dirt pushed by an Israeli bulldozer clearing a Palestinian area.
Ms. Bitton’s film is not so much a portrait of Ms. Corrie, reviewing events that fed her idealism, as much as an examination of her death. Ms. Bitton, who has French and Israeli citizenship, interviews Ms. Corrie’s fellow activists from the International Solidarity Movement — Scots, an Englishman, a Chicagoan, a performance artist from Kansas City, Mo., in their teens and 20s when in Gaza — as well as her parents and professors, a doctor, members of the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinians who knew her.
No Gazan on camera speaks of Palestinian militant activity, while Israelis are twice filmed holding documents that are related to the incident against their chest like scarlet letters; Ms. Corrie’s agonized mother is in deep close-up as her father reads a letter from their daughter. Ms. Bitton’s off-screen voice is audibly sympathetic with the activists and disdainful of the Israelis, who are mindful of the international condemnation prompted by the death but stoic, resigned to the consequences of a perennial conflict.
A protester acknowledges the “extremely naïve” dimension of his actions, and Ms. Corrie, while wry in writing about “propagandizing” in her letters, also comes off as endearingly youthful, passionate and earnest. Regrettably, the film, almost devoid of music, is drastically undermined at its end by an inadvertently comic rap tribute by the Kansas City performance artist to the “American citizen with Palestinian blood.”
— Andy Webster, New York Times, 8 October 2010
[A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a short review of the documentary film Rachel, which I’ve reprinted above. The film is another look at the death of the young American activist Rachel Corrie who took up the Palestinian cause in 2003 and stood in front of an Israeli bulldozer to prevent it from knocking down a Palestinian home. She was killed there in Gaza on 16 March 2003. As Andy Webster’s review notes, this same territory was covered by the controversial documentary play My Name Is Rachel Corrie, which I saw in its Off-Broadway run in 2006. Now I’m publishing on ROT the (slightly amended) report I wrote on that performance to coincide with the release of the film.
[My Name Is Rachel Corrie, edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, had its première at the Royal Court Theatre’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in London from 7 to 30 April 2005; the production moved to the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs from 11 to 29 October 2005. In February 2006, the New York Theatre Workshop announced a production of Rachel Corrie for their season, to run from 22 March to 14 April 2006, but after protests from Jewish groups and threats to withdraw financial support by contributors to NYTW, the theater decided to “postpone indefinitely” the production in order to “contextualize” the performance. Rickman and Viner denounced the decision and withdrew the play. Rachel Corrie ultimately played commercially at the Minetta Lane Theatre Off-Broadway from 15 October to 17 December 2006 (including an extension).]
On Tuesday, 17 October 2006, my friend, and frequent theater companion, Diana and I went to My Name Is Rachel Corrie which is playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre in the Village in the original London production for a limited run. As some of you may know, the play was announced last March at the New York Theatre Workshop for what would have been its U.S. premiere, but it was withdrawn when several (unnamed) Jewish groups protested. NYTW claimed it would only postpone the production until it could set up some "context" (read: defensive panels and other counter-events), but no one believed them and many prominent theater artists—including Vanessa Redgrave, Harold Pinter, and Tony Kushner—First Amendment advocates, and anti-censorship activists attacked the theater for cowardice and suppression of free speech, and so on. (It was not unlike what happened when the Manhattan Theatre Club caved under threats of violence and yanked their 1998 production of McNally's Corpus Christi—though they eventually reinstated the production. I guess Jews threatening to pull support is scarier than Christians threatening death and destruction. Go know.)
I'm sure most Israelis (like my friend Helen Kaye) know the history behind the play, and maybe you all do—but in case you've forgotten or haven't caught up since the play hit some headlines, Rachel Corrie was an American from Olympia, Washington, who became an activist "international" in Gaza protesting the Israeli and Israel Defense Force actions against Palestinian civilians. She and her group, the International Solidarity Movement, most strongly objected to the destruction of the homes of Palestinians when someone in the family was accused of taking part in the Intifada or terrorism. At one protest on 16 March 2003, she put herself between a home in Rafah and the bulldozer and was crushed to death. She was 23 and had been keeping a journal since she was 12 and e-mailing her parents and friends daily—and she was an extremely articulate and gifted writer. (At the end of the play, there is a short tape of the real Rachel Corrie making a speech at some rally when she was 10 years old. She was already an aspiring poet, and her speech—almost a prose poem—is an astounding piece of writing for anyone, let alone a 10-year-old!) It's little wonder that someone would find in her journals and messages the voice of someone worth paying attention to, so Alan Rickman, the British actor, and journalist Katharine Viner, who call themselves "editors" for this project, assembled selections into a script that was first staged in 2005 by the Royal Court Theatre's upstairs experimental theater and then moved down to its main stage. It was very well received by both critics and audiences in London and both the play and Corrie became causes célèbres (though Corrie had already been since her death).
It's important to note, I think, that Corrie was never a rabid pro-Palestinian activist or anything remotely close to that. She was an idealist and a humanist—and, perhaps (depending on your viewpoint), naïve in the way that many sensitive adolescents, especially in this country, often are. Neither she nor the play preaches the "Palestinian Cause" (whatever that is)—it is not polemical in that sense. Of course, it's hard not to see that both her sympathies and those of the "editors" lie with the civilians who are devastated on both sides, but especially those who face the force of the "ninth most powerful army in the world." Even so, outside the theater, even in the pouring rain we had here all day that day, there were a pair of advocates for Israel passing out fliers with the opposing perspective on Corrie's death. ("Would you like some more information on the play," they asked politely as we passed by.)
Okay, enough history and background. There are many websites with information on both the play and Corrie—you can look it up yourselves if you need more. My task is to describe the performance. And I'm sad to report that it was disappointing in the extreme, on just about every level. I guess I should explain why I even went to Rachel Corrie, especially since it's one (actually two) of the kinds of theater I generally don't like very much—a one-person show and a documentary play. (That last is a bit ironic as I'm reworking an essay on the subject.) First, and obviously, there was so much mishegoss about the play from the cancellation at the NYTW and it had come with such a reputation for excellence that I had to see what it was all about. Second, I oppose vociferously all censorship (except for true national security and protection of innocents like children and crime victims). I don't make a distinction between official governmental censorship by fiat or censorship by intimidation. This was my way of protesting the actions of those who prevented NYTW from presenting the play, even if the message were execrable (which it wasn't anyway). I stand with our Founding Fathers (I think it was Jefferson or Madison, but I'm not sure) who said that the only proper response to speech you hate is more speech.
But that's all politics of one kind or another. As theater, Rachel Corrie is terrible. Ben Brantley's review was in the Times on 16 October and he was somewhat ambivalent. It was almost as if he was afraid to make a commitment one way or the other about his response to the play. There's not a thing theatrical about the production concept—it's just a young woman talking for 90 minutes. (She climbs on the set—a representation of a bombed-out house—a little. Oh, and she types on a computer several times. That's it.) And she has no audience—I have no idea who we are in this scheme. I mean, there are so many easy set-ups: in Mark Twain Tonight!, we're simply the audience at a Twain lecture; the same for Clarence Darrow. Gertrude Stein had invited us into her apartment for a chat in GS3, and Louise Nevelson was being interviewed by a journalist in Albee's Occupant. (Occupant maybe isn't such a good example—it was a terrible play, too.) Krapp talks into his tape recorder—he's by himself; we're not even there. But Rachel Corrie has no conceit at all as far as who the audience is. Since the material is mostly Corrie's diary entries, there's no innate audience (despite what Cecily Cardew says); the few e-mails are to people back in Olympia—her parents for the most part. We're certainly not them. Why the hell is she talking to us?
Then, as a consequence of this same source material, it's all just a long monologue. There's no real variation. Corrie's images are vivid enough—for a writer, but they don't provide much for an actress to do. It's not unlike a poetry recitation—the poems may be beautiful, but the reader doesn't do much but oral interp. That's neither very theatrical nor very dramatic. In fact, the only hint of drama comes not from Corrie's words (and certainly not her actions—she hasn't any to speak of), but from history: we know from the outset what befalls her. When Corrie writes with great optimism and generosity of spirit, we know how it's going to end. But that isn't in the writing, or the acting, or the directing, or the "editing"; it's not in anything creative at all. (And it isn't even in the play, except at the tail end when there's a recorded memoir of the event by an "eyewitness," delivered from an empty stage.)
I can't even say that the acting was as great as all the reviews reported. Maybe Megan Dodds is a good actress—but how does anyone really know? I certainly don't know her, and I don't know Corrie—so I can't tell whether what Dodds is doing on stage is really just her own personality, a re-creation of Corrie, or a totally fictional construct she and Rickman (who also directed) just made up. I mean, she's natural enough on stage, and that's an accomplishment of course—but it's not enough to get the tag "great acting." Not in my book, anyway. I mean, she did have Corrie's exceptional words to iterate—but I have no idea if she did anything more with them than just parrot them. Whatever "character" there was on stage really came from the words Corrie wrote—I got no sense that Dodds added anything or brought anything to light that wasn't in the journals. At the very end, as I mentioned, there's a videotape shown of that 10-year-old Corrie. That wasn't the same person grown up that I saw for the preceding 90 minutes.
(After I saw the production, the producers announced that Rachel Corrie was extended about a month from its original 19 November closing date. So much for my response. Apparently I was in a minority--though Diana did share my opinion. I’d heard one TV review—NY1, I believe—that seemed to agree with me, too. The reviewer wasn't as definitive in her judgment as I was, so I couldn't be absolutely certain she agreed. Anyway, I guess enough people wanted to see it, perhaps for issue-related reasons more than the quality of the dramaturgy, that the producers are keeping it around longer.)
I have kept calling Rachel Corrie a play—because I don't have another word for it. It's not a play. I'm not even sure it's theater. I don't know what it is (aside from enervating). I said it was propaganda, though Diana argued with my definition of the word. She insisted that propaganda has to include the attempt to make you believe something against your inclinations; otherwise, she said, it's just public information. First of all, I disagree—I don't think propaganda has to include making you believe something you otherwise wouldn't. My American Heritage Dictionary defines the word as "The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those people advocating such a doctrine or cause." It's not necessarily nefarious or evil, either. My dad's job was propaganda when he was in Germany—cultural propaganda, to be sure, but propaganda nonetheless. He didn't lie or cover up, but he did have an agenda: to show the United States in the best light possible. He presented Albee's American Dream for his German constituents—but USIA balked at sending West Side Story on a government tour because it showed a bad side of American society. That's propaganda in my book—benign maybe, but still information with an agenda. Second, even if you require of propaganda that it try to persuade surreptitiously, I still think Rachel Corrie qualifies. It wants you to sympathize with the beleaguered civilians whose homes are being bulldozed. It doesn't say so straight out, but that's what's going on, even if Rickman and Viner had no such agenda. (I think they did, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt for the sake of argument.) And, hey—I don't even disagree with that message: as one line Corrie quotes in her journal (from a Palestinian man she talks to), it's the leaders who make war. The little folks just get caught in the middle, no matter which side they're on. (And just for the record, I didn't support the policy of knocking down homes that way, any more than I agree with U.S. policy of banging up without legal recourse a bunch of Middle Easterners and Southern Asians just because someone labeled them "unlawful combatants.")
Diana asked what else anyone could have done with this material. The assumption seems to be that there's an alternative way to present it theatrically. But just because Corrie was a sympathetic figure, even an inspirational one, and she wrote extraordinarily well and expressively doesn't mean that she has to be dramatized. Maybe the stage isn't where she belongs. The answer to the question of what else to do may be that when you find that the verbatim text of the diaries doesn't stage—then you don't stage it. No one said you had to! You acknowledge that maybe it belongs in another medium. Ironically, I kept thinking of The Diary of Anne Frank—because the source material is so analogous (and Frank was also a budding writer). But Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett didn't transfer Frank's diary to the stage verbatim—it's not a documentary play. They took her story and retrofitted it onto a drama with characters and relationships. (In the sections of Corrie's journals that Rickman and Viner selected, there are no other characters—though I imagine there are elsewhere in the material.) Okay, Anne Frank is excessively sentimental—it was the '50s after all—but we're only talking about dramaturgy here. It certainly worked: it ran for over 700 performances on Broadway (and even the 1997 revival ran over 200 in our cynical and jaded age).
Ironically, there's a line at the end of the play in which Corrie says she's beginning to question her "fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature." That's awfully close to the direct reverse of the closing line of Anne Frank, where Anne affirms, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."
(After I sent out this report in late October 2006, my friend Helen Kaye in Tel Aviv wrote back. she was, of course, living in Israel at the time of Rachel Corrie’s activism and death in Gaza, and her response to my report on the play, which hadn’t been staged in Israel for obvious reasons, was this:
(It's an eye-opener what you write about Corrie because of course none of that ever comes across from local information. It makes me recall (albeit foggily) the portrait painted by the media of Jomo Kenyatta at the time of the Mau Mau rebellions. He was made out to be a wild, filed-tooth savage that crunched human bones for breakfast, figuratively speaking. Then, when he became Kenya's first president, he was revealed as university-educated, well-read and an author. Corrie was painted by our media as just another fuzzy-minded, pro-Palestinian do-gooder who brought her demise upon herself. Nonsense, of course. I was in China when it happened and wasn't following too closely events in my part of the world.
(Unfortunately, I haven't the slightest doubt that the bulldozer made no attempt to avoid her.
(This is what makes existence here so schizophrenic. On the one hand some of the Arabs will be satisfied only when the last Jew is gone from the land and the threat against us is real. On the other, the things we do to the Palestinians in the name of "security" go beyond shameful. They are an obscenity and a disgrace to put it mildly.)
* * * *
[I don't hold with censorship either by official fiat or by intimidation, as I said (see also “The First Amendment & The Arts,” ROT, 3 May). I vehemently reject the stance taken by the opponents to the NYTW’s proposed presentation of Rachel Corrie. Furthermore, many First Amendment advocates see the relatively new tactic that’s arisen, the demand for “balance,” as a form of insidious, non-governmental censorship. Controversial views, whether expressed in art, lectures, essays and articles, exhibits, films and television programs, or theater, are challenged by both the right and the left if they are not presented with a “context” of the expression of views on the opposite side of the issue. This, critics say, suppresses dissenting voices and often results in the cancellation of the entire event as happened to My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Let me quote a line by Stephen Hopkins in the musical 1776: “Well, I’ll tell y’—in all my years I never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. . . . Hell yes, I’m for debatin’ anything . . . !” You don’t cut people off when you don’t like what they’re saying, you debate them.]