First-hand reports: Screening of controversial Rachel film at SF Jewish Film Festival

Muzzlewatch has been covering the San Francisco Film Festival brouhaha. Here are two accounts describing what happened on Saturday, when the movie Rachel was finally screened:

From JVP member Joel Frangquist:

When Peter Stein, director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, took the stage on Saturday to introduce the program for the film “Rachel”, it must have been one of his tougher moments. Stein later told me that getting through the program had “felt like landing a plane in a storm.” It should be noted that the Castro Theater was full, that Stein received a standing ovation, and that when he mentioned Jewish Voice for Peace and the AFSC, there was thunderous applause.

After having reviewed the controversy, and having asked us all to be respectful of the entire program, Stein was followed by Michael Harris of San Francisco Voice for Israel. Harris claimed that his presence could not balance the two hours which were to follow him. As if the “Rachel” program needed balancing within the context of a film festival presenting 37 films from or about Israel, including two about Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas and Hezbollah. As if everyone in the audience didn’t know that Israelis have died in this conflict. As if the film “Rachel” was not going to include Israeli testimonies.

Initially, the audience was quite respectful of Harris comments, and unanimously applauded his assertion that Israeli victims of suicide bombings, along with Rachel Corrie, should all be alive today. It was only when when Harris began attacking the film, the festival, the ISM, and the co-presenters that things got ugly. There certainly were a lot interruptions of booing, as well as more thunderous applause when he mentioned JVP and the AFSC. It should not be said, however, that the audience didn’t let Harris’ speak.

On more than one occasion, Harris asked us to grieve equally both Rachel Corrie and Israeli victims of terrorism. The entire audience applauded each time. Conspicuously absent from these moments, however, was any mention of Palestinian victims of the conflict. Harris’ comments were a microcosm of the denial that pervades those in the Jewish community who were attacking the film festival for showing us a piece of the truth. Apparently for Harris and SF Voice for Israel, Palestinians do not grieve, do not need to be mourned, do not exist.

And then we saw “Rachel.” Let me state the following unequivocally: The film is a documentary about the death of Rachel Corrie. The film does not stray from the subject of Rachel Corrie, and the time, place, and people who were closest to her death, including Israelis. (In fact the film includes more Israeli voices than Palestinian.) It does not permit Michael Harris style pontificating by anyone who was not involved, who did not have a personal connection to the event covered. Stylistic choices notwithstanding, the film is a model of journalistic integrity in this respect.

The actual moment of Rachel Corrie’s death, as portrayed in the film, is a subject about which there are conflicting accounts; we lack any concrete video or photographic evidence that can firmly settle the contradictions in testimony. (The IDF video from that day shown in the film appears to have been cut at the crucial moment.) I do not think that the film will change the mind of anyone who already has strong opinions. But for those who are not already committed, it will dispel ridiculous myths and open a window onto the nitty-gritty of a particular reality.

After the film Cindy Corrie took the stage, answering a few questions from Peter Stein and a few from the audience. In one question, Cindy was asked was whether she had met with the families of IDF members killed in the conflict. Cindy not only answered yes, but added that she had met with the parents of suicide-bombing victims as well. She went on to ask us to mourn the deaths of her daughter, Israelis, AND Palestinians, for which the audience applauded. The contrast between her and Harris, who left out the Palestinians, could not have been more striking.

Read also what Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb has to say. She is a staff person at the American Friends Service Committee and a member of JVP’s Advisory Board–two of the organizations under attack by the Koret and Taube Foundations.

The Koret and Taube Foundations are part of a wide spectrum of individuals and organizations, Christian and Jewish, who attempt to enforce the axiom: there shall be no public criticism of Israel. This platitude ironically goes hand in hand with the view that ‘Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.’ Over the past several decades, self-appointed watch dogs of appropriate Israel discourse have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and poured out enormous doses of vitriol upon any individual or organization that dares to expresses even a drop of sympathy with the plight of Palestinians.

The fact that the vast majority of people in the crowd at the Castro Theatre would not let the Voice of Israel representative speak his mind without interruption reflects growing frustration with the use of pubic slander, character assassination, cancellation of speakers, firing of faculty and demand for resignations by the so-called defenders of Israel. Since when are people with views that differ from AIPAC, for instance, invited into mainstream circles to speak for five minutes before a pro-Israel speech or film? The representative of Voice of Israel was not there to dialogue. Only to chastise. The crowd refused to be chastised. When the impassioned proponent of Israel mentioned JVP and AFSC in order to condemn them as virulent anti-Semites, the crowd burst into cheers and applause to honor them instead.

You can read her full statement here.

- Sydney Levy