September 11
review by Gregory Avery, 19 September 2003  

For the film September 11, the French producer Alain Brigand invited eleven international directors to contribute a short film pertaining to the terrorist attacks that occurred in the United States on that date in 2001. The only stipulation was that each episode was to last eleven minutes, nine seconds and one frame (11/09/01 being the European-style date for the day of the attacks). Otherwise, the filmmakers had complete latitude in what they wanted to say and how to say it.

Samira Makhmalbaf's episode, which opens the film, starts out by showing Iranian villagers making mud bricks for a shelter because the United States is going to attack Afghanistan and, they think, drop an atomic bomb. The village's considerably more cool-headed (female) schoolteacher rounds up the kids for class that day, saying that, if they did drop an atomic bomb, mud brick shelters aren't going to do much good. (Actually, the people we're watching in this episode are Afghan refugees settled on the Iranian border---a piece of information mentioned so fleetingly you almost miss it.) The teacher tries to get her assembled class to observe a minute of silence for those who had perished that day in the World Trade Center towers, but the kids are squirrely -- "God doesn't only destroy humans. He builds them, too," observes one child in the class -- so the teacher ends up taking them outside and, using a tall chimney, impresses on her class what it would be like to be a person in a high tower that is suddenly attacked. It's a beautifully done segment, and even including some moments of infectious charm alongside its understated message.

French director Claude Lelouch shows us a couple in New York City who, because they speak to each other in sign language, appear to be deaf. Only the woman is, though, and the man is breaking off their relationship because she is too possessive. After he's left for his job as a tour guide, she takes the initiative to write him a farewell letter, while, in the other room and out of sight, a television broadcasts the attacks as they happen. Two respected film critics walked out of showings of "September 11" when it premiered at the Venice and Toronto festivals in 2002, and I suspect it may have been because of this episode, which appears to be using the attacks to frame the woman's banal, self-pitying comments (she writes about whether or not she is "just a mute LOST IN A TALKING PICTURE?" [sic]. However, the episode ends effectively, saving it from falling completely into the realm of questionable taste.

The seventy-seven-year-old Egyptian director Youssef Chahine uses the loose, searching, fanciful, reflective style of his autobiographical "Alexandria trilogy" films to depict a scenario whereby Chahine (played by Nour el-Cherif, who played Chahine's alter-ego, "Yehia", in the second "Alexandria" film, An Egyptian Story, in 1982) converses with a U.S. Marine, killed in Beirut in 1983, and with a young Palestinian suicide bomber -- the latter is somewhat more angrier than the former, although we see why. Chahine's episode had charges of anti-Americanism leveled at it, but the director is explaining, not condoning, what would cause someone like the Palestinian bomber to do what he does, and Chahine, fairly, tries to give everyone equal say, pro or con. The episode also points out that, ideology aside, there is still a considerable distinction between dying and living.

Danis Tanovic's episode shows a group of women in post-war Bosnia listening to radio reports on the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington---the eleventh of each month is when they regularly assemble as the "Women of Srebrenica", the town where, during the Yugoslav war, many Muslim Yugoslavs sought refuge, only to apprehended and killed by Serbian forces, just because they were Muslim. British director Ken Loach devotes his episode to a Chilean exile who fled his country after the military coup that ousted elected President Salvador Allende -- an action backed by the U.S. at the time, because Allende was a Communist -- which took place on September 11, 1973; the dictatorship which then took power tortured and killed many Chileans during the years that followed. Burkina Faso filmmaker Idrissa Ouedraogo follows a young boy selling newspapers to try and support himself and his ailing mother. One edition of the paper he sells announces the huge reward offered for the capture of Osama bin Laden -- after which the boy and his friends spot someone who happens to look a lot like bin Laden in their own village. The boy and his friends methodically go about planning how they can capture him, and how they can use the reward money -- the adults would just squander it on luxuries, while the boys want to use it to help people -- if they can only get the adults to believe that they've found bin Laden. (And they certainly give it a good try -- reminding one of what Groucho said in Animal Crackers, "This would be a better world if the parents were made to eat the spinach.")

Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, for his part, creates an aural soundscape against a black screen -- moving from what sounds like chanting in an Islamic religious school, to the sound of an airliner in flight, followed by media broadcasts of the explosions at the Trade Center -- then cuts in flashes of news footage showing people falling, or jumping, from the floors where the planes struck. Easily the most disturbing (and ambitious) of the film's episodes -- replete with a closing observation, presented in both Arabic and English, that can't help but polarize anyone watching the film. (And Gonzáles Iñárritu seems a bit polarized himself, as if realizing that he was trying to express the inexpressible.) Israeli director Amos Gitaï goes the one-shot-wonder route, following police, emergency workers, then a TV news crew as they converge on the site of a bombing -- either in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem (it keeps changing) -- into which news of the U.S. attacks on the same day gradually trickles. Sean Penn wrote, directed, and dabbles in a bit of "magic realism" for his episode, about how the collapse of the towers affects an aged man and husband (played, with great tenderness, by Ernest Borgnine -- say what you like about Penn, he gets great work from actors) who lives in a tiny apartment, and how it does so in unexpected ways. (Without taking away anything from Penn's contribution, Abel Ferrara was said to have been originally approached to film the U.S. episode -- and it would have been interesting to see what the director of Bad Lieutenant and King of New York would've come up with.)

Mira Nair's episode is also set in New York, and attempts to address the treatment of Americans of Arab descent in the days directly after the attacks, dramatizing a true story about a Muslim woman whose son goes off to work but fails to come home on Sept. 11; meanwhile, she has to contend with investigators who automatically assume that he was mixed up in some sort of suspicious activity. Nair's approach deliberately avoids anything that might be incendiary, but it feels like it could have been developed a bit more -- although the moment when the woman spots her son, at the last minute, on a commuter train that is just pulling away from a platform, and you realize that nobody around her is going out of their way to help her because she looks Middle Eastern -- creates a bit of a tug. Shohei Imamura's episode, however, goes in a completely different direction altogether -- it shows a Japanese soldier, returned home at the end of the Second World War (the specter of a Third World War, by the way, is alluded to in Makhmalbaf's episode), who thinks he's a snake, slithering on the ground instead of walking, and at one point biting someone's hand. He's finally turned out-of-doors altogether when he consumes a rodent (which, of course, is what snakes do). "Does being a man disgust you that much?" one character asks him, before Imamura delivers the punchline: "There is no such thing as a holy war."

All in all, a fairly respectable undertaking: all of the episodes have something worthwhile to look at. We, of course, do not yet have the luxury to forget how we felt about the September 11 attacks. The film functions as both an observance, and as something that gets us to think about what happened -- as Peter Rainer has already commented, film, while it cannot provide a curative, can at least provide a continuum, so that we may move forward, rather than backward, after an event of such tragic proportions.

Directed by:
Samira Makhmalbaf
Claude Lelouch
Youssef Chahine
Danis Tanovic
Idrissa Ouedraogo
Ken Loach
Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu
Amos Gitaï
Mira Nair
Sean Penn 
Shohei Imamura

NR - Not Rated
This film has not
been rated.






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