Epic tragedy, little films

Polemics, abstractions, romances … a mixed bag.

The brainchild of French producer Alain Brigand, September 11 is an anthology of 11 short films by 11 different directors of international repute, each in some way related to the tragic events of 9/11. The directors were given total freedom in terms of their responses: They could be specific or indirect, personal or political or both — as long as they stuck to the apparently symbolic length of 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame. Predictably, given the various artistic temperaments and the difficulty of addressing such an awesome topic in vignette form, it’s a mixed bag, but one that has the cumulative effect of making us think about 9/11 in global terms rather than as the national tragedy it’s so often viewed as being.

The least effective segments tend to be the most directly polemical. Egyptian director Youssef Chahine — known for such kitschy musical dramas like The Other and Destiny — wants to make the point that there’s a history behind the event and motivations for many dastardly acts, but he does it in fantasy form, simplistic and bathetic. At least nobody sings. Chahine’s purplish sense of reality is signaled early on when a film crew, taking some pre-9/11 shots of the World Trade Center without the proper authorization from the city, is shooed away by a cop who begins his request for them to leave by saying, “If you don’t stop filming now, I’ll shoot.” Sure, NYC cops can be a little testy, but c’mon. More disappointing, because it’s from a director one expects more from, is Ken Loach’s retelling of the CIA-assisted murder of Chilean president Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973. Sure, it’s a low point in American foreign policy and one can understand Loach’s urge to pierce American righteousness, but it still seems a little off-topic; consisting mostly of documentary footage from the period, it comes across as a capsule version of a story that’s been told much better elsewhere.

Some of the directors have chosen to devise fictional miniatures and the best of these is the one by the African director Idrissa Ouedraogo. His post-9/11 fable is about a young boy who is sure he has spotted Osama bin Laden in his West African town. With some friends, he plans to capture bin Laden, claim the $25 million reward and help his ailing mother. It’s a bittersweet story, humorous without seeming irreverent.

Also effective is the entry by Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf, about a teacher who tries to convey the enormity of what has just happened in New York to her young charges, Iranian refugees in Afghanistan who look to be around kindergarten age.

Sean Penn offers a misguided attempt at allegorical pathos as Ernest Borgnine wanders around his apartment talking to his dead wife, oblivious to the catastrophe that happens just outside his window. Two directors, France’s Claude Lelouch and Japan’s Shohei Imamura remain, at the risk of seeming a bit too self-absorbed, true to their auteurist personae: Lelouch gives us romance in the shadow of tragedy; Imamura (the only director who didn’t write his segment himself), the story of a devastated soldier who returns from World War II and decides to become a snake.

India’s Mira Nair tells the true story of a young Pakistani man who disappeared on the morning of 9/11 and whom the FBI suspects of being a terrorist. The ironic truth finally emerges, but not before much pain is inflicted on the man’s family. It’s a sharp reminder of mob-like mentality that passed for public discourse and conventional wisdom right after 9/11. (At one point, on a TV in the background, Bush repeats his inane mantra about ridding the world of evildoers.)

Danis Tanovic, of Bosnia-Herzegovina and No Man’s Land fame, and Israeli director Amos Gitai offer sympathetic stories from fellow sufferers, both being from countries where war and terror are too-familiar events. And, finally, Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros) constructs the most abstract piece, a collage of music, chanting voices, and desperate cell phone calls over a black screen with brief flashes of light which slowly reveal the ghastly spectacle of bodies falling from the World Trade Center towers. Although it’s actually the seventh of the film’s 11 entries, it’s the climactic heart of the anthology, the point which it builds up to and then gradually retreats from. Inarritu has distilled the horror, the thing itself, and the stories that surround it are the stunned, angry, sad and sometime uncomprehending reactions that it has wrought.


Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday, Sept. 5-7. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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