Due to a world-class migraine, my viewing of 11’09″01 – September 11 was cut short. However, what I viewed deserves to be remembered (memory is, after all, a major theme of this series of films), and if it doesn’t get typed out, it might be forgotten. Some background on this/these film(s) is, eleven different directors, all from different countries, were asked to contribute short films responding to the event of 9/11. The film’s opening sequence boasts, “Complete artistic freedom.” Despite this dubious notion, the films certainly represent a spectrum of takes on the disaster, the United States, and ideology. It’s an intriguing project, and it implies something about the nature of the 9/11 catastrophe. These are not eleven films made by eleven different US directors, but eleven different world directors, only one of whom is from the US (Sean Penn?). Because of the difficulty of attaining the film in the States, I have linked the film titles to sites where they are presently viewable (I can only find three of them). Since this (hopefully) wasn’t a moneymaking venture, I am in good conscience here. Still, who knows how long the links will stay alive, so, sorry in advance if they’re gone. Since I can’t find all of the individual segments, here is a Youtube user who has posted the entire film in 10:00 chunks, but not separated by film.
From what I can tell, each short film’s title was simply the name of the country from which it came. So Iran’s contribution was Samira Makhmalbaf’s Iran, which initiated the series. In the segment, a female teacher walks through open areas of people, largely children, making mud bricks into the beginnings of a sort of defense. She yells at them that if an atom bomb is dropped, bricks won’t save them; they should send their children to school instead. In school, the children display their ignorance of the event that has occurred that day which has the parents paranoid. These families are Afghan refugees living in Iran, worried that when the US retaliates against Afghanistan, they too will be targeted. In the classroom, the teacher attempts to persuade the children of the significance of what has happened on that day, but the children have no ability to conceive what happened. The teacher tries to tell them what a “tower” is by pointing out the window at a long, narrow, smoking chimney. When the children fail to keep quiet for a full minute out of respect for the fallen, the teacher walks them outside to the chimney, where they are more successful. The final shot, positioned from below, has the teacher and children in the foreground and the smoking chimney extending all the way up, eerily reminiscent of the Twin Towers, for those who have seen them. This segment seems to illustrate the difficulty of explaining to children what happened on that day. The gravity of the event is impeded by their innocence, as they cannot even understand what a skyscraper looks like, let alone what it means for thousands of people to die horrible deaths.
The next film is from Claude Lelouch, entitled France. The simple title is reflected in the simple narrative held within. It takes place in New York City, and it features a man and a woman in an apartment in the morning. The woman is deaf, and the man runs a tour service for the hearing impaired. Most of the film is shot from the woman’s point-of-view and hence, has very little sound; only the faint echo of louder noises as a deaf person might hear them. This film is more moving than the first, and in it Lelouch offers a more accessible lesson. The images of the towers are used ironically in this segment, demonstrating how sight suffers when sound is dead. Deep focus and long takes characterize the segment, which takes viewers much closer to the actual catastrophe of 9/11 and forces them to see it differently.
The third film Egypt, is directed by Youssef Chahine. It is probably the weakest of those viewed. It raises a valid point but does so in a flawed manner. The question is, isn’t every American guilty of the wrongs done by its government, since it is a democracy? Even though the main character (incidentally, a film director patterned after Chahine) is deeply affected by the event of 9/11, the film implies American fault at a level that will be uncomfortable to many, especially in light of the tragic nature of the event. Certain cinematic clichés, such as the apparently obligatory love scene and its kinda obscene innuendo, distracted from a potentially thoughtful film. Of course, if an American criticizes this film, it will be interpreted as ignorant patriotism. Hopefully anyone who has read anything on this blog knows that’s not the case here.
One of the more stirring segments is Danis Tanovic’s Bosnia-Herzegovina. The film’s POV is that of a young woman who, with other women, demonstrate on the 11th of every month over a Bosnian tragedy. The woman’s delicate relationship with her mother and the wheelchair-bound male friend help ground the film in reality and set it in marked contrast with the Egyptian film before it by avoiding clichés. When the other women find out on 9/11 what has occurred in New York, they sit quietly listening to the radio. When the main character comes in, she is told that there will be no demonstration today. Not unaffected by the New York event, the woman still insists that the demonstration must take place. Beginning only with herself and her male friend, the demonstration begins, as the rest of the women eventually join her. Tanovic kept an excellent balance in this film between present and future. Wallowing in the event is paralyzing, but moving ahead quickly refuses the necessity of grief. The film also serves as a reminder, especially to Americans, that there are and have been other world tragedies requiring acknowledgment. These tragedies have been both bigger and smaller than 9/11, but because they didn’t take place on US soil, they are not always given the voice that they deserve. My cousin, traveling through Bosnia-Herzegovina not long ago, showed me pictures she took from a small village that looks like it was bombed yesterday. Tragedies in countries like this constantly remind its remaining inhabitants of what happened, and a lack of voice in the world keep the people from being able to move ahead. Tanovic should be commended for pointing this fact out to us while remaining utterly sensitive to the pain of those in the US.
Certainly one of the most entertaining parts of the series was Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Burkina Faso. It is told from the vantage point of a boy and his cronies in an African village. After finding out what has happened in New York, the boy is sure that he recognizes from the newspaper photos Osama bin Laden there in the village. He gathers his friends together, they “borrow” a father’s camcorder, and they spy on who they are sure is Osama. They determine that the $25 million reward would allow them to cure a mother of one of the boys from her illness and allow her son to return to school. After gathering sufficient footage on the camcorder, they decide to capture Osama with the help of some rope, spears, and fake guns. The day they decide to take action is a day too late, however, and they are forced to watch him fly away on, ironically, a commercial airliner. The film allows a minimal use of subtle comedy to put even such a catastrophe as 9/11 into the perspective of rural, third-world children. How are they going to respond to such an event? Clearly, they cannot and cannot be expected to get their heads around it. Those who witnessed the event firsthand cannot get their heads around it. What is remarkable, and what this film illustrates, is how an event like 9/11 can totally usurp the normal lives of people such as these boys in Burkina Faso. Even if they really don’t grasp what has happened, they are consumed by it. Or perhaps, they do grasp what has happened, and better than most. Without being blinded by the shock and awe of the event, they acknowledge that someone is responsible and ought to be held accountable. They eschew the notion that they as children are impotent to help. The film does well not to answer the question, was that really Osama? It’s beside the point. But the best way to view the film is to ask, what if it were? Look who almost caught him.
Mira Nair (whose Mississippi Masala has been looked at recently) added India. The film is set in New York, in an Indian-American immigrant family. Because the story is a bit drawn out, it seems more complex than it actually is. A young adult son disappears on 9/11 and the authorities implicate him, by virtue of his ethnicity, in the catastrophe. The mother is given POV priority, adding an emotional component but leaving some paternal love to be desired. In the end, it is discovered that the youth was killed when he showed up at Ground Zero and tried to rescue survivors. Local television stations proclaim him a hero and he is given a hero’s burial, which provides his mother with the opportunity to condemn the way of things when a person is unfairly villainized before being justly heroized. The film succeeds in some ways and lacks in others. It is certainly accurate in revealing stigmas that are still alive and well in the US. The whole episode forces one to recall the internment of the Japanese during WWII.
Though I watched Ken Loach’s British contribution United Kingdom, unfortunately the force of my migraine seems to have wiped it from my memory, so I’ll proceed on to the piece de resistance, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Mexico. The film is highly experimental in its form, relying on sound to such an extent that it can nearly be described as the antithesis of silent film. Iñárritu’s previous films, also very formalistic, include Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. Babel is strongly related to Mexico not only formally but also thematically. Aside from that, Mexico is a film that discourages or rejects description. One of the main points of this blog is to help my own memory recall the many films I see. Since this film is unforgettable in the truest sense, and since anyone who hasn’t seen it won’t be helped by a description, I think I’ll skip it. Suffice it to say, Iñárritu has been accused of using images of catastrophic horror for the purpose of artistic experimentation. It seems that when someone hits the nail on the head so perfectly, even when it was a risky move, he cannot be criticized. It is clear that Iñárritu never for a moment forgot what happened on 9/11 while he made the film. It is also clear that he was motivated by a determination that no one ever forget. Knowing that the images of that day have been played ad infinitum and become only images for many, Iñárritu uses sounds, almost entirely composed of human voices to pierce much deeper than graphic images can do. The words at the end are intentionally vague: “Does God’s light guide us or blind us?” Still, they effectively pose a question both to victims and to perpetrators.
It is not clear if this film, or collection of films, is a balm to those for whom 9/11 was a catastrophe. The catastrophic is a powerful force on the human psyche, and all too often it is not dealt with adequately. There is an extent to which looking into the horror is necessary. Those who have read Akira Kurosawa’s Something Like An Autobiography know about how Kurosawa’s older brother, when they were children, forced Akira to look upon the devastation of the aftermath of the Kanto earthquake. Death literally covered the streets, but Kurosawa’s brother told him that if he looked straight at the horror, he would not be afraid of it. This idea of the need to look violence and pain in the face has been given different spins, including that from Spielberg in his justification for the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. But something seems to happen when the horror is transformed into an artwork, something out of not only the imagination of another person but also his/her creativity. Such efforts may be commendable, but is creativity the proper realm for the catastrophic as it relates to actual people and events? Perhaps at times. In this case, the same argument might be applied to 11’09”01 as was applied to Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center: it’s too soon for films about it. (It’s always too soon for Oliver Stone films about it.) If a catharsis takes place in the viewing of such art, then perhaps it is beneficial. But for those still wondering and suffering, it’s easy to imagine that the art representing the tragedy creates something new, something like tragic art. It may have the ability to recall, but it’s more likely to reinvent. It offers multiple ways of looking at an event when a person who has experienced a catastrophe often by definition doesn’t know what s/he thinks and feels about it. When one stops to consider the exchange taking place during the viewing of this film, one wonders if it’s healthy, or even what it’s accomplishing.