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11'09"01 / September 11 (NR)
Official Site
Directors: Youssef Cahine (Egypt), Amos Gitai (Israel), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Mexico), Shohei Imamura (Japan), Claude Lelouch (France), Ken Loach (United Kingdom), Mira Nair (India), Samira Makhmalbaf, Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso), Sean Penn (USA), Danis Tanovic (Bosnia Herzegovina)

Producer: Alain Brigand

Rating: out of 5

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 again!

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 issue.

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 metaphysical weight.

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.

—Ellen Whittier


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