11’ 09” 01
Shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, French producer Alain Brigand assembled a group of 11 filmmakers from around the globe. Each was tasked with creating a short film about the events of 9-11; they were each given complete creative freedom, except for the fact that each short film had to be 11 minutes, 9 seconds, and 1 frame long, which corresponded to the European notation for September 11th. It’s an admittedly odd conceptual conceit, with seemingly little purpose, as it is a stretch to say that the arbitrary time limit (one English critic noted that if the filmmakers had used the American notation, the film itself would be 22 minutes shorter) was commemorative in some way. The completed omnibus film had it’s North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, a year after the attacks themselves, where it has since met with much subsequent controversy, as several segments, especially those of such avowed Leftists as Ken Loach and Youssef Chahine, were perceived as anti-American, while others, such as the segments by Danis Tanovic and Amos Gitai, only had tangental relationship to the events of 9-11 (these two segments in particular, chose to focus on local tragedies).
While some of the critiques of the film have borrowed arguments taken from similar criticisms of Holocaust themed films (“How do you represent something so horrific that it is unrepresentable?”), most of the criticisms leveled at the film are curiously similar, no matter how they phrase their complaints, which run from “tasteless” and “lack of perspective” to “ideological axe-grinding,” “me-too-ism” and “anti-American bias.” (a mea culpa, I can only read the American, Canadian, and British responses to the film). The exact phrasing used seems dependent on the ideological bent of the publication and/or critic in question; though critics of all political stripes seem to zero in on the fact that only Shohei Imamura’s allegorical segment, (in)directly condemns the terrorists themselves. I think the problem for many reviewers is that certain segments of the film break with the sanctified space of the official discourse. It’s an official discourse, perpetuated by the government and mainstream media, that seeks to mythologize 9-11 for it’s own purposes, instead of situating the events in the larger scope of messy reality, in effect placing the events of 9-11 in a political and historical vacuum. Some filmmakers have effectively began to think outside the box. Is it really “tasteless” to point out the historical irony that the CIA-backed coup which deposed Chilean President Allende, and which led to the death and torture of thousands, also began on a Tuesday morning, September 11th, 1973, or is it just an uncomfortable truth of American foreign policy?
It’s strange that such a cataclysmic event such as 9-11, has produced so little in the terms of film/video art (maybe because it was such a mediated event, other large scale events which were heavily covered by the media, such as the first Gulf War, have also produced very little). There was the “special” West Wing
, which played like a bad piece of theater, but which towed the party line, albeit from a liberal perspective; certain parts of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine
(the one scene which directly deals with 9-11, the montage of American foreign policy blunders and atrocities set to “It’s A Wonderful World,” is probably the most criticized segment of the film, with such buzzwords as “tasteless” and “anti-American bias”); and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour
, which captures a wounded New York still dealing with repressed spasms of anger, regret, and sadness (and not forget how the final montage of the growing Manhattan skyline in Gangs of New York
was criticized by some conservative critics).
This is not to say that the short films which comprise 11’ 09” 01
are beyond reproach. They are definitely not. As in any omnibus film, the results vary widely in aesthetic quality, intelligence, and relevance, and several are quite atrocious (the Lelouch and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in particular). Here are my thoughts on the individual segments:
1. Samira Makhmalbaf (Iran)
The opening segment of the film is one of the best. Set in an Afghan refugee camp on the Iranian border, Makhmalbaf’s film begins with her camera focusing on some children making mud bricks. It seems the entire refugee camp is a buzz, believing that the Americans will soon attack with atomic bombs, so everyone is hastily constructing a crude bomb shelter. A female teacher gathers all the children together and tries to teach them about what happened on September 11th, attempting to enforce sympathy from children’s whose limited conception of tragedy begins and end with the two men in their refugee camp who died when they fell into a well. Exasperated (the children vigorously debate how many people actually died when they fell into the well, as well as whether God kills people or not, when they are supposed to be observing a moment of silence), the teacher takes them outside and tries to impress upon her students the magnitude of events by comparing the WTC to the chimney of the local brick kiln. It’s debatable whether the children actually understand or not, but Makhmalbaf’s film points to three related themes, which also run through the best segments of the film: the problem of representation created by something as horrific as 9-11 (in fact only one of the segment directly deals with the terrorist attack, and it’s the worst of the lot); that for many people, the events of 9-11 are an abstraction; and the locality of most tragedies (counterpointed to the media-saturated events of 9-11).
2. Claude Lelouch (France)
Pretty close to the worst segment of the film, notable only for it’s near total absence of a soundtrack (save for one short burst of expository dialogue); Lelouch has apparently said that the silence was a tribute to the dead, but it is diegetically motivated by the main character, a deaf French woman, living in lower Manhattan with her tour guide boyfriend. On the morning of 9-11, their relationship is in a state of dissolution. They fight, he leaves (we learn from the dialogue that he’s going to lead a tour to the WTC), and she proceeds to write a Dear John letter that only a character, as written by a French director, could write, completely oblivious to the images on the TV in the next room. She only obliquely senses the events, when she feels the vibrations caused by the collapse of the towers. The events of 9-11 precipitate a lover’s reconciliation, as the boyfriend, caked in ash and dust, with tears streaming down his face, comes home to find his girlfriend, who has yet to comprehend what has happened. Comfort of a lover in tragedy. I guess the film is interesting from a technical standpoint, but it is also solipsistic and overly sentimental, and is probably the least relevant segment, even though it is set in lower Manhattan. I can’t believe they couldn’t find a better director from France.
3. Youssef Chahine (Egypt)
One of the more controversial segments of the film, and also the one that next to I??rritu’s film, most skirts the boundaries of pretentiousness. It’s also one of the film’s most interesting segments, as Chahine, the only Arab contributor to the film, expresses a measure of both ambivalence and sympathy over what happened on 9-11. He’s also the only director in the omnibus film to directly confront his own feelings surrounding the events of 9-11. Chahine does this by inserting himself into his story; in a meta-narrative twist, Chahine has an actor, playing an Egyptian film director named Chahine, wrestle with his own feelings towards 9-11, in the form of a dialogue with the deceased spirit of an American Marine killed in the the Beirut barracks bombing of 1983. “Chahine,” like the director, is not limited by space and time, and jumps back and forth between them. We visit New York City, as Chahine attempts to film the WTC, and is shooed away by a police officer; then we visit Beirut, as Chahine cancels a press conference due to 9-11, prompting one female reporter to ask Chahine whether he canceled the press conference because of the tragedy or because he did not want to answer their questions.
It is on the beach where the spirit of the American Marine, Danny, first materializes out of the ocean. It’s clear that all of this is going on in the mind of Chahine, for one thing both the NYPD officer and the Marine speak in Arabic (I also found it interesting that Chahine injects a bit of comedy into his segment, in a film which is almost completely devoid of humor; in this case, Chahine, trying to ignore his guilty feelings plays volleyball with his ghostly friend, to the puzzlement of the local teenagers who can’t see Danny; perhaps this humor is another reason why critics disliked this segment). We learn that Danny found love in Beirut with a Lebanese girl, and we witness the preparation of the Palestinian suicide bomber who would kill Danny (both of these scenes are presented in a heightened, melodramatic, movie-movie -like mode). Chahine listens sympathetically to the bomber’s father and mother as they proclaim their son a martyr, an act which angers Danny’s spirit. In the following scene, which is perhaps the most controversial of the segment, Chahine plays footage of the WTC collapsing in reverse on his laptop, but laments that the same can not be done for the dead. When Danny castigates Chahine for visiting the suicide bomber, Chahine lays out the simple rationale as to why terrorists target American and Israeli civilians, and then angrily lectures Danny on the atrocities of American foreign policy, stating that America should defend and propagate it’s values, but not at the expense of others. Danny, a bit chastised, thanks Chahine, and prepares to leave, but Chahine first asks where Danny is buried. He replies Arlington National Cemetery. We next see Chahine at Arlington, searching for Danny’s grave, where he meets Danny’s Lebanese lover (the reporter from the press conference) and his father, the NYPD office, while ignoring the brusque protests of the Palestinian suicide bomber, whose spirit castigates Chahine for expressing sympathy for the “enemy”.
What I liked best about this segment is that Chahine, through his alter-ego, is personally putting himself on the line; as a modern, Westernized filmmaker, and also an Arab, Chahine is torn between two opposing sides, and is able to express an measure of sympathy for both. His character embodies both the sympathies felt by many for America, as well as justifiable anger, especially in the face of American arrogance (also personified by Danny). The segment is open-ended, Chahine never manages to reconcile the two sides successfully, but how can you in such a short time? But, at least he wrestles with the question.
4. Danis Tanovic (Bosnia)
On the 11th of every month, the women of Srebenica commemorate the massacre of the Muslim men by the Bosnian Serb Army, which occurred on July 11, 1995. Tanovic’s camera follows one survivor, as she prepares for the monthly protest on September 11th. Walking to town for the protest, she meets a male friend, a war amputee. When they arrive at the meeting place, the gathered women of Srebenica sit in silence listening to news reports from NYC, and initially refuse to march. Tanovic’s main character draws the comparison between what happened in New York City and what happened in Srebenica, and refuses to be silent. She argues, that if there was any day to commemorate the dead, both of Srebencia and NYC, this is the day. She goes outside with her wheelchair-bound friend, ready to march alone, but she is followed by the rest of the women, who proceed to march in solidarity. Tanovic’s segment is probably the most quiet and unassuming, but I enjoyed his humanist statement.
5. Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso)
This was one of the odder segments of the film. Five schoolchildren in the town of Ouraga think they’ve spotted Osama Bin Laden in their midst. One of them, Adama, who first spots Osama, has a sick mother, and needs money to pay for her medicine, so the $25 million dollar reward seems very appealing. They attempt to capture the man, but he keeps slipping through their fingers. Ouedraogo’s attempts at absurdist humor falls flat, but like Makhmalbaf, he finds interesting things to say about the aftermath of 9-11 by looking at it through the eyes of children. While at first it seems like the school children understand the calamity, unlike the clueless adults (who simply proclaim that “the world has gone crazy”), it’s soon revealed that the boy’s understanding is a miasma of idealism and boyhood fantasy, especially in their quest to capture Osama, who has gained some sort of devilish, mythic status among the boys. Extend that to other situations, if you will.
6. Ken Loach (UK)
Unequivocally, the film’s strongest segment, as well as the strongest condemnation of American foreign policy, Loach’s segment concentrates on the historical irony of the “other September 11th,” the 1973 coup that deposed the democratically elected Socialist government of Chilean President Salvador Allende. Loach, working with screenwriter Paul Laverty and London-based Chilean exile Vladimir Vega (who worked with Loach on his film Ladybird, Ladybird
), crafts his film in the form of a sympathy letter, written by Vega, expressing condolences to the victims of 9-11-2001, while also explaining the other September 11th. In his letter, he recounts his experiences of working towards a better future for Chile with the Allende government, the attempts to undermine the Allende government by US-backed fascist groups, and then the bloody coup itself, which resulted in the murder, torture, and exile of thousands, all in the name of anti-Communism. Vega narrates his personal story over footage culled from newsreels and other films (in particular, the documentary, The Battle of Chile
), as if he was in the process of writing his letter. Loach keeps the contemporary footage simple: shots of Vega writing, or deep in thought; playing soccer with his children; and in two separate interludes, singing songs about his native Chile, while gently strumming a guitar. At the end, Vega implores that the victims of 9-11 to never forget what happened in Chile, as they will not forget what happened in New York City.
As many commentators have notes, this segment initially seems like a simple expose of some kind of tit for tat response (Loach probably did not help his case when he wrote in the production notes that the WTC and the Pentagon where targeted as symbols of American power. But then again, that’s so obvious), but the whole segment is infused with a sense of not only anger, but also of compassion and sadness. The enemies of freedom are not just terrorists. It is interesting to note that Henry Kissinger declined to head the 9-11 Inquiry, citing unspecified conflicts of interest.
7. Amos Gitai (Israel)
Easily the film’s technical tour-de-force, consisting of one long, complicated tracking shot, which moves back and forth, surveying the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Chaos reigns as paramedics attempt to evacuate the wounded, and security officials try to clear the area, fearing more bomb attacks. Entering into the swirling mix is an Israeli TV news crew: a screeching female reporter, the boom toting soundman, the cameraman, and a roller blade wearing assistant. The crew tries to report on the aftermath, despite being barked at by the military and herded around by the police. The jostled reporter is incensed that she can’t get on the air, even though their was a suicide attack in Tel Aviv, because, in the words of her editor, “something big happened in New York.” Not realizing what has happened, the reporter continues her attempt to get her scoop, at one point unrealistically speaking a monologue about all the calamities which have occurred on September 11th (it seems to be a very unlucky date), before she is eventually shooed out of the bombed out street corner by the police. The camera observes the camera crew from a distance, as they presumably learn what happened in NYC.
Despite it’s long tracking shot, this segment is disappointing, because it is unclear what Gitai is trying to say. He captures the confusion and chaos of a terrorist attack, but he fails to draw any sort of parallel between the events in Tel Aviv and the events in NYC, other than the shared experience of being the victim of Islamic extremists, which is not particularly illuminating; you’d think that an Israeli director of Gitai’s stature would have much more to say on the subject.
8. Mira Nair (India)
Mira Nair’s segment is a docudrama set also set in NYC, in the weeks and months after that attacks of 9-11. Based on true events, Nair’s story recounts the worries of a Pakistani-American family after their eldest son goes missing on the morning of 9-11. Suspected by the FBI of being a terrorist, the family is ostracized by their initially supportive neighbors, up until the young man’s body is pulled from the rubble of the WTC, and is vindicated as a hero; a police cadet, the young man rushed to the WTC to help when the first plane hit, and was killed when the towers collapsed. Nair’s film is the only segment of 11” 09’ 01
which deals with the chilling effects of 9-11 on the Muslim-American community. Unfortunately, the film is hampered by amateurish acting, and largely fails to connect emotionally. Even though the film exposes the latent racism and xenophobic mistrust of many Americans, it ends on a somewhat optimistic note, as people of all races and creeds gather together at the family’s mosque for the young man’s funeral.
9. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Mexico)
The worst segment of 11” 09’ 01
is clearly Inarritu’s experimental piece, the only non-narrative segment of the entire film, and the only film which directly confronts the terrorist attacks. For most of the running length, the film is comprised of darkened frames, with occasional, momentary flashes of television footage showing people throwing themselves from the upper floors of the WTC rather than burn to death. Whatever it is that Inarritu is trying to convey (I guess the horror of the situation, but his methodology is too remote and pretentious to be really successful), is mostly done via a aural collage of strange noises, sound bytes from television reports, and answering machine/voice mail recordings of loved ones, either on the planes or in the WTC, saying goodbye to their loved ones (some have called the film exploitative, I’m thinking they are referring to the recordings and the footage of people committing suicide). Eventually, the screen fades to white, and a quote in Arabic appears on screen for a few moments, before the English translations appears: “Does God’s light lead us or blind us?” Thanks for aphorism, buddy.
10. Sean Penn (USA)
Sean Penn is a good director, but he is too stylistically mannered. Does this film, a one character, one set acting piece starring Ernest Borgnine, really require a sequence with three split screens depicting the same shot (one among many of the films affectations)? The film itself plays more like a filmed acting exercise than a real short film, with Borgnine, playing his part a little two theatrically for its own good. In the film, Borgnine plays an elderly man who is still in denial that his wife has died; he continues to talk to her as if she was still there, and each morning he picks out one of her dresses and lays it carefully on the bed, treating it reverentially. On the open window sill, sits a pot of dying flowers, probably uncared for since his wife’s death, though he maintains the fiction that they do not get enough sunlight. Curiously Borgnine’s apartment seems to be perpetually cast in shadows. Then one morning, as Borgnine sleeps on his bed, the sun begins to streak into the darkened apartment for the first time, awakening Borgnine. He looks out the window and sees that the flowers, in a bit of magical realism, have beautifully regenerated, but at that same moment, Borgnine comes to realize that his wife has died, and begins to weep uncontrollably. The camera sweeps out of the window, maintaining a discrete distance from the grieving widower. As the camera observes the sobbing old-man, the shadow on the left side of the screen suddenly falls away. I guess it’s a nice metaphor for 9-11, the painful light of truth and the opportunity of regeneration, but the whole enterprise is freakin’ ridiculous.
11. Shohei Imamura (Japan)
The final segment of 11” 09’ 01
is a parable by Imamura, and it is very recognizable as his work (the special mixture of black comedy and the grotesque that seems uniquely Imamura). Just before the end of WWII (rumors of Hiroshima are in the air), a young Imperial Army soldier returns to his isolated village, from the war on the Asian mainland. So traumatized by what he saw in China, and so ashamed of being a human, the man returns to his village thinking he is a snake, slithering on the ground, hissing at former friends and family. At first, everyone takes pity on him, since he fought for the Emperor, but eventually he becomes bothersome; his wife long ago took up with the local Bonze, and his family tries to keep him in a bamboo cage, that is, until he bites his mother and begins to eat rats. Then he’s shooed out into the swamp, until his predation upon the village livestock becomes problematic. Not wanting to lose face, the villagers attempt to capture the young soldier, but he retreats farther into the swamp and farther away from humanity. Eventually, the young soldier physically transforms into a serpent. The film ends with the serpent coiled up, ready to strike, as the titles on screen reprise a bit of dialogue earlier uttered by a dying Chinese soldier: “There’s no such thing as Holy War.”