1. The Wages of Suffering
The film anthology September 11 includes 11 films
by 11 directors from 11 different countries. Each is 11 minutes
and 9 seconds long. What does anyone expect when they go to
a film like this one? Greater understanding? Political awareness?
“Catharsis?” Because of its scale as a landmark spectacle
of human suffering, 9/11 cries out for exploratory responses
and fresh perspectives, but the very need for such works can
hinder expression even as it invites it. The pressure is on
to make powerful works in response to powerful events.
Witness the arrival of yet another “definitive” film about
the Holocaust about every five years or so. The accolades
ensue as self-serving vanity productions like Schindler’s
List or Life Is Beautiful are embraced as ennobling
excursions into greater human understanding. Both films have
their virtues and can be touching at times, but, in all honesty,
how many people can say that Benigni’s or Spielberg’s
films significantly enlightened them about the Holocaust?
How discomfited were audiences by either of these “masterpieces”
of human suffering?
If you are going to meditate on tragedy, including one that
is smaller in scale than the Holocaust, like 9/11, you had
better be ready to unnerve your audience so they can really
feel something. According to its opening credits, the filmmakers
of September 11 were given “complete freedom of expression,”
and there are some political hot-button countries represented
(Gitai from Israel, for example) but it’s hard to get excited
about most of them. Few of the filmmakers really try to unsettle
anyone, and as a result, some of the films seem painfully
modest, although none of them are boring.
Strangely enough, 11 different filmmakers from 11 different
countries have managed to make 11 films with virtually the
same message and what is most unexpectedly radical about
September 11 depends on this uniformity. Almost without
exception, the filmmakers repeatedly treat 9/11 not as an
isolated, uniquely shocking event, but as simply one more
painful example, among many others, of human pain that spans
the globe. It is arguable that all pain is equal, but useful
to be reminded that human suffering of all stripes is inter-related.
If you want insight into the events of 9/11, you won’t find
it in this anthology, and that is the anthology’s point.
2. The Dangers of Overemphasizing Nationalism
Before each film in the anthology appears, its director’s
country of origin pulsates on a world map so we can identify
which part of the “global community” that director “represents.”
But what kind of relationship does each director really have
to his or her corresponding nation? If we accept the premise
of the throbbing map, which makes each filmmaker an impromptu
representative of his or her nation, then the joke’s on us.
The best films in this anthology are by directors from Burkina
Faso and Japan. Films that hail from European and Middle Eastern
directors are a mixed bag. The least successful film, directed
by Sean Penn, is from the U.S.! American dominance—foiled
Due to limited space, I will skip worthy efforts, particularly
by Samira Makhmalbaf and Amos Gitai, in order
to give you the anthology’s highs and lows.
3. Eat Your Camera
By turns delightful, chilling, and surprisingly thought-provoking,
Idrissa Ouedraogo’s film (West Africa, Burkina Faso)
tells the story of Adama, a young boy who tries to scare up
funds to pay for the medicine his mother requires to alleviate
her suffering from AIDS. The 9/11 disaster is Adama’s window
of financial opportunity. He can profit from one tragedy in
order to alleviate another.
Adama hears about the Bush administration’s $25,000,000 reward
for capturing Osama Bin Laden, who has miraculously,
if inexplicably, appeared in Adama’s village. Adama enlists
his friends to help stalk his prey. They “borrow” a video
camera from one of the boy’s fathers and covertly film Bin
Laden to prove he exists. Armed with ropes, a gun, and a spear,
also “borrowed,” they track Bin Laden to his favorite park
bench, only to discover that he is at his hotel instead—and
about to leave town. When they attempt to catch him at the
airport, a guard prevents them from entering the building
and tosses their videotape away scornfully.
Having exhausted their scheme, the boys waste no time seeking
alternatives. 9/11 has outlasted its usefulness for them.
They consider kidnapping George W. Bush when he visits
Africa, but fear America will bomb their country to bits.
Finally they opt to sell the video camera.
Ouedraogo’s film is the only one in the anthology that pinpoints
economic desperation as a crucial component in human suffering.
It is also the only one to use the act of filming itself as
social commentary. Adama solves his financial woes by selling
off the very instrument that Ouedraogo uses to practice his
craft—the director’s medium is expediently consumed by his
own creation. Eat your camera. That’s gutsy filmmaking.
4. Shed Your Skin
In Imamura’s film, a man believes he is a snake.
He takes on his new identity in response to the shock and
awe he experiences as a soldier in the midst of battle during
WWII. He returns home to slither, slide, and subsist in a
cage made of branches. His family and village try to understand
his metamorphosis, but if anyone gets too close, he literally
bites. After gripping his mother’s hand in his “fangs” a little
too hard, she exiles him from home. The villagers, fearful
that he will be discovered by others and shame the village,
try to hunt him down, but he slips through the mud on his
belly and vanishes into a stream. While Imamura’s end-title
informs us that there “are no such things as holy wars,” the
film would have been better off without this explicit moral.
The film is imaginative and direct: The suffering caused by
war and prejudice is so intense, it could make someone want
to become a member of another species.
5. I Beg Of You, Turn Off Those Heavenly Choirs
The two worst films in the anthology represent the perils
of trying to make important statements about big events. Sean
Penn’s and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s films both
suffer from bloated pseudo-religious impulses.
Sean Penn, a fine actor, can be all too sanctimonious as
a director. He wants to make us ache at spectacles of human
grief and loss ( The Crossing Guard, The Pledge) and
his actors give their all as they sweat and weep through their
performances as ordinary folks who become fate’s martyrs.
This is serious suffering, right? So why do I feel as if I
am trapped in a Method acting class and can’t get out fast
enough! Oh, the sincerity! They bleed for all of us!
Penn casts a surprisingly good Ernest Borgnine as
a widower who can’t recover from the death of his wife. He
speaks to her as if she is still alive, and lays out her clothes
for her every day. Her favorite pot of flowers lies withered
on the windowsill. As the 9/11 disaster strikes, a strange
light comes over the flowers and restores them to life. The
widower is first thrilled, then breaks down as he turns to
show his wife the rejuvenated blooms and the reality of her
death finally hits him. Simultaneously, the shadow of one
of the falling towers appears on the side of his apartment
building. Bleed for him!
This dogged attempt to connect the painful psychological
awakening of an ordinary man with the death of thousands of
people (many spouses and partners) is not convincing. Penn’s
attempt to move our souls with bathos is more about his effort
to be recognized as important than about real human suffering.
Another questionable instance of the complete freedom supposedly
enjoyed by the filmmakers is that only one chose to use a
non-narrative approach. Inarritu (Mexico) intercuts actual
footage of people jumping from the towers with black screen,
all underscored by an increasingly loud and violent soundtrack
of news broadcasts before and during the event. As the broadcasts
reach a painful pitch, a heavenly choir begins to sing and
a question appears in Arabic and English: “Does God’s light
blind us or guide us?” Are these the only options? Religion
is a crucial issue in the 9/11 attacks, but Inarritu’s question
puts an annoyingly artsy, Philosophy 101 spin on a very complicated
Excuse your reviewer as she moves to the next section—she
is suffering from a “pretension headache” brought on by the
abusive inclusion of heavenly choirs to provide synthetic
6. Add Another Point of View to the Review
Images that remind us of the World Trade towers are replete
throughout these films: the tube that runs up Adama’s mother’s
arm; the long trail that the fleeing Japanese soldier-turned-snake
leaves in the dirt as he slithers away, an outcast from his
family’s home; the long, cylindrical well in Makhmalbaf’s
film from which a man draws two glittering buckets of water.
At times, I wished that someone would compile various uncanny
images, shapes that echo the twin towers, like the reel of
censored kisses that are spliced together in Cinema Paradiso,
but without cloying sentimentality. The eye can continue to
discover these variations as they are refashioned over and
over in unexpected places.
7. 9/11 as Visual Event
September 11 may want to downplay 9/11, but it was
one of the most horrifyingly cinematic spectacles ever. It
was meant to be seen and to leave an indelible visual impression
on its audience of millions, like a super-sized snuff film.
The unique nature of 9/11 as a visual event, one repeatedly
compared to a scene from a big budget American action film,
but with the notable addition of real dead bodies and live
trauma, is worth considering. While I applaud the reminder
of how 9/11 is not unique in the annals of human suffering,
I wish one of these filmmakers had taken on its relationship
to cinema and television in general.