Film festival under fire for scheduling Rachel, inviting mom

Of the 37 films with ties to Israel in this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, one in particular has several prominent local Jewish leaders and activists outraged

On July 25 and Aug. 4, the SFJFF will show “Rachel,” a documentary that explores the controversial death of American peace activist Rachel Corrie at age 23. Festival organizers invited Corrie’s mother, Cindy, to a Q&A session following the July 25 screening.

Rachel Corrie burns a mock U.S. flag during a rally in the southern Gaza town of Rafah in February 2003. photo/ap/khalil hamra

Local chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace, an Oakland-based group that supports Palestinian self-control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the American Friends Service Committee, a social justice organization of Quakers and others who have taken up the cause of the people of Gaza, signed on to help the festival promote “Rachel” to their constituencies

Peter Stein, the film festival’s executive director, said that given his six years of experience with the festival, in addition to its 29-year run, the backlash “certainly didn’t surprise” him.

“I was not naïve that this was a controversial film,” Stein explained, noting that he has received a few phone calls and roughly 15 e-mails from those expressing discontent. “I know there are many members of the community who would prefer if the festival stayed away from programming films on difficult topics or topics of passionate division of opinion

“That being said, if we, as an arts organization, are going to remain relevant in our time, it really is part of our role to catalyze conversation, however uncomfortable it may be.”

Jewish filmmaker Simone Bitton splits the focus of her 2008 documentary between Corrie’s work with the International Solidarity Movement (a Palestinian-led group committed to using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles) and the investigation that followed her death in March 2003.

Corrie in a scene from the documentary “Rachel.” photo/courtesy sfjff

Corrie, who was from Olympia, Wash., reportedly was killed by an Israel Defense Forces–operated bulldozer while protesting the destruction of Palestinian houses in Rafah, a city that shares a border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip.

The film has been shown this year in at least seven festivals, including events in Berlin, Paris, Buenos Aires, New York and Toronto.

While Cindy Corrie, who serves as president of the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice (founded after Corrie’s death) appears briefly in the 100-minute film, reading an excerpt from a letter written by her daughter, it is her appearance at the film festival that has many up in arms.

“The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival made a serious error in judgment in inviting Mrs. Corrie to the festival,” Israel Consul General Akiva Tor said via e-mail. “She is a propagandist who is immune from responsibility for the causes she supports because it was her daughter, Rachel, who was accidentally killed.

“So her staged presence becomes a kind of emotional grandstanding, rather than pursuit of a deeper insight.”

The decision to include “Rachel” at this year’s festival, which runs July 23 through Aug. 10, was based on several factors, Stein said.

Peter Stein

For one, he and SFJFF program director Nancy Fishman saw the documentary when it made its debut at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival and deemed the movie a “worthwhile piece of filmmaking on an important subject matter.”

Second, the pair shares a professional relationship with Bitton, having screened two of her films — “Mahmoud Darwich: As the Land is the Language” in 1998 and “Wall” in 2005 — at previous festivals.

Bitton, who is Jewish and holds dual citizenship in Israel and France, declined Stein’s invitation to speak about “Rachel” at the upcoming festival, citing traveling conflicts.

The film, made available to j. on DVD, attempts to show both sides of Corrie’s mission and her death, weaving excerpts from her journal (read aloud by her fellow members of the International Solidarity Movement) with interview subjects who present varying accounts of her death.

That’s not to say Bitton shies away from controversy. For example, the filmmaker showcases an Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman who calls Corrie’s death “a regrettable incident” and claims the bulldozer never touched her, and then a Palestinian doctor who claims to have witnessed the incident, after which he says, “The Jews have killed our friend Rachel Corrie.”

As for Cindy Corrie’s presence and participation at the screening, Stein said it is customary for film festivals to encourage the subjects of documentaries or cast members of fictional films to engage in an open dialogue with the audience.

“Our plan is for me to be in conversation with her, then open it up to a Q&A,” Stein said. “We’re not asking Cindy Corrie to make a speech. She’s viewing this as an opportunity to talk about the issues raised in the film.

“In some ways, it’s a credit to her that she may know she’s coming to face, if not a hostile audience, then certainly members who have a strongly different opinion on the events surrounding her daughter’s death, or Israeli and Palestinian affairs.”

Though he hasn’t yet seen “Rachel,” Rabbi Doug Kahn, head of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said the decision to invite Cindy Corrie is “very problematic,” noting her presence would “increase the likelihood that it will become a political forum.”

Added Kahn: “I called Peter within seconds of learning about the film and her appearance to let him know there would be significant criticism. All in all, it was an ill-advised decision. But it should also be looked at in the context of the overall festival program, which offers a tremendous array of films about Israel.”

To Stein’s knowledge, no protests or boycotts of the documentary have been planned. He added that the festival is taking the appropriate measures to ensure guest safety at the film’s two screenings, in San Francisco and Berkeley.

Stein was quick to point out that this is not the first time the SFJFF has shown controversial films. He recalled receiving criticism in 2005 when two conscientious objectors from the Israeli Army Reserve appeared in conjunction with the documentary “On the Objection Front.”

In 2006, the decision to invite Eva Mozes Kor, the subject of “Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” was met with challenges because of her controversial views on forgiveness of Nazi perpetrators.

Pro-Israel activist Natan Nestel of Berkeley voiced his disapproval for this year’s presentation of “Rachel” in a lengthy letter to j., calling on the SFJFF board of directors to “acknowledge the mistake” they made and “cancel the anti-Israel propaganda event.”

“Corrie has become a hero of anti-Israel extremists,” Nestel wrote. “Her story is not really about a young American activist who died of complex circumstances. It’s about promoting a hate-filled and glaringly one-sided anti-Israel agenda.”

While Stein said he realizes some films and guest appearances can be “polarizing,” he hopes audience members will “take a step back to understand what the motivation and intentions are” with regard to the programming.

“Our Jewish community in the Bay Area,” Stein said, “is big enough and strong enough to not only tolerate this difficult conversation and film, but grow stronger by them.”

“Rachel” screens 1:30 p.m. July 25 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F., and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Cindy Corrie is scheduled to take questions following the July 25 show. Tickets and information: www.sfjff.org

Amanda Pazornik