After Paul Greengrass’s masterful United 93, the 2002 short film collection September 11 can’t help but register as something of an afterthought. So allow it to be noted upfront that there’s nothing here as powerful as Greengrass’s cinema verite take on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Rather, what we get is a very mixed bag from some of the most interesting filmmakers in contemporary world cinema.
The guiding concept is relatively simple and, for better or worse, fairly loose: 11 directors from around the globe were commissioned to put to celluloid their own responses to the events of 9/11, with the catch being that each effort had to clock in at precisely 11 minutes, nine seconds, and one frame. The end-results run the gamut in terms of both quality and substance. Were we to evaluate September 11 strictly on the basis of its finest contributions, it would be essential. If, instead, the whole is only as good as its weakest link, said whole would be a lamentable mess.
My rating of this film is the average for the 11 respective shorts. For the purposes of this review, though, I’d rather address each entry individually. I will do so in descending qualitative order.
Samira Makhmalbaf’s effort comes first sequentially in September 11, and is, just by a hair, the collection’s strongest. When I first heard about the project coming together five years ago, I remember wondering why its organizers hadn’t selected Abbas Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi or Samira’s father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, to represent Iran (one of cinema’s major hot spots over the past couple decades, to be sure).
Samira (At Five in the Afternoon, Blackboards) was a good call, evidently. Her film features a schoolteacher trying to address the attacks in New York to her class of young Afghan refugees. When she attempts to prompt her students, by asking whether they’re aware of the event, they respond, quite confidently, by mentioning regional tragedies: some local workers having fallen in a hole; a woman, related to one student, was stoned to death in Afghanistan. The theme here — that awful things are happening all over the world — is mined throughout the collection. Makhmalbaf’s approach, however, is natural and graceful, unlike that of some of her peers. It isn’t bettered in the two-plus hours that follows.
Next-best is Ken Loach’s contribution. The British stalwart turns his camera on Vladimir Vega, a Chilean-born Londoner who fled his homeland after the CIA-orchestrated coup d’état left the South American nation in the hands of a military dictatorship. We watch and listen as Vega composes an open letter to the victims of the 2001 attacks and their families, while contrasting the recent American tragedy with the September 11, 1973 ousting of socialist leader Salvador Allende Gossens and the subsequent violence and chaos that ensued in Chile.
There are, of course, other segments in this collection that attempt to place historical blame on the US, and others, too, that shift the attention to significant 9/11’s elsewhere in the world. The overriding tone of Loach’s film is more mournful and ultimately sympathetic than simply critical, though. Vega’s letter concludes with a poignant request: “We will remember you. We hope that you will remember us”.
Mira Nair’s short follows the after-effects of 9/11 for a Pakistani American family in New York, whose missing son is initially suspected of terrorism and later lauded as a hero after his body is found amid the Ground Zero rubble. Looking back, we tend to selectively remember the event’s immediate aftermath for its bringing together of Americans and for the renewed sense of patriotism it instilled. Nair focuses on the racist paranoia directed toward Islamic Americans in the wake of the attacks.
Based on a true account, we see a grief-stricken mother defend her son’s name when interrogated by the authorities; she points to his Star Wars poster on the wall and proudly shows them his football team photo. Later, at his funeral service, she wonders aloud what might have happened if she hadn’t raised him to do the right thing. Perhaps, then, he wouldn’t have rushed into that burning building to try and help. Perhaps, then, he’d still be alive today…
From the West African nation of Burkina Faso comes Idrissa Ouedraogo’s wonderful contribution, the collection’s lone comic piece. The film follows a group of schoolboys who think they’ve spotted Osama bin Laden in their village. Initially, they follow him around with a video camera, taping his daily routine. Then, they round up some rope, spears, and guns in an attempt to reap the $25 million reward for bin Laden (mainly to secure proper medical treatment for one boy‘s sick mother).
Alas, their suspect escapes to the airport. As they watch his plane disappear into the clouds, they plead, “Come back, bin Laden. We need you here!” Ouedraogo’s slyest joke is never out-right confirming that the tall, bearded man in question isn’t who the kids think he is. Now six years removed from the attacks and the subsequent start to the War on Terror, their guess remains as good as anybody’s as to the whereabouts of 9/11’s elusive mastermind.
After those four, there’s a precipitous drop-off in quality on September 11. So, for fifth-place, I’ll go with the entry by the late Japanese auteur Shohei Imamura, the collection’s strangest, by far. All the other shorts here deal directly with, or at least allude tangentially to, the titular subject. Imamura’s focuses on a World War II-era Japanese soldier who, following the bombing of Hiroshima, takes on the behavioral characteristics of a snake.
Initially, my reaction was one of curious bemusement. Of course, this wasn’t the first time I’d reacted in such a manner to an Imamura film. Nor was it the first time that, after allowing the film’s images and mood to gel in my memory, I came around to appreciating Imamura’s singularly surreal aesthetic.
Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, who took home an Oscar for 2001’s No Man’s Land, offers one of September 11‘s more understated efforts. The film follows a group of women preparing for a protest march when the attacks in America occur. They sit together and listen to a radio report, describing the events as they develop. The commentator, like the stunned women we’re watching on screen, is already aware of what the event’s effects could mean globally. “After this,” he soberly suggests, “we can expect anything”.
The most rabidly critical piece comes courtesy of Egypt’s Youssef Chahine, who casts an actor as his on-screen surrogate in a dialogue with a pair of ghosts; one an American soldier, the other a Palestinian suicide bomber. Naturally, their debate centers on the moral hypocrisy of defending American (and Israeli) brutality, while arbitrarily designating what constitutes “terrorism”. This is similar to the territory that Godard’s mined (much more effectively) in superb recent efforts like In Praise of Love and Notre Musique. Deployed by Chahine, the argument, a valid one, remains provocative, but reeks more plainly of unproductive anti-American dogma.
Claude Lelouch, a decidedly odd choice among French directors, goes the love story route with his entry, charting the near-break-up of a deaf-mute woman and her boyfriend, a New York City sign language tour guide. This middling Euro-style melodrama is somewhat redeemed by fine performances, but the make-lemonade conclusion is just too much. Following the Twin Towers’ collapse, the couple embraces and presumably makes up, as cheap a narrative device as anything in Titanic or Pearl Harbor.
If the selection of Lelouch over dozens of more accomplished French filmmakers proves a head-scratcher, the United States’ chosen representative is down-right perplexing. No, it’s not Spielberg or Scorsese or Eastwood. Or Jim Jarmusch or Richard Linklater or Spike Lee. It’s Sean Penn, arguably America’s greatest working actor, but hardly a force to reckon with behind the camera (remember The Indian Runner? The Crossing Guard? no?). It’s hard not to suspect that Penn’s political activism spoke louder than his directorial body-of-work when declaring his candidacy for the project.
Like Lelouch’s short, Penn’s includes first-rate acting (by Ernest Borgnine), but is muddled and ultimately manipulative. Stylistically, Penn apes Darren Aronofsky’s ADD-style jump cuts, distractive sound editing, and Film School 101 split-screen in following Borgnine‘s widower around his New York apartment. For his denouement, he offers a magical-realist flourish that’s as questionable in taste as Lelouch’s lovers’ reunion.
For his part, Israel’s Amos Gitai turns in an essentially hollow piece of agitprop. Where Chahine’s short just barely cohered into a quasi-substantial critique, Gitai’s merely flirts with some radical politics that add up to little. In it, a female news reporter scopes out the scene on Jerusalem Avenue in Tel Aviv following a bombing — on, right, September 11, 2001 — and cites a litany of significant events that have occurred on the same date at various points in time. Later, she overhears that a much larger-scale disaster has occurred in New York. I think the idea is one of histories of violence, trivialized or lost in the mix of the global media maelstrom. Or something like that.
And, finally, there’s Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, which may or may not be the worst among these eleven; it is undoubtedly the most confounding. It’s a harrowing symphony of prayers, emotional final phone calls, and TV talking heads trying to make sense of the event they’re covering played mostly over black screen, with sudden cuts to video images of people jumping desperately from lofty floors of the Twin Towers and the Towers themselves smoking and collapsing. It’s not the only time in September 11 that we’re forced to watch again that footage that seemed inescapable for months after that fateful day, yet it’s far and away the most shocking.
To come full-circle, Iñárritu seems to be striving to capture the same raw, jarring effect that Greengrass nailed squarely with United 93. But where Greengrass achieved genuine catharsis through sleekly sculpted narrative-form, Iñárritu’s would-be avant-garde sliver feels crassly exploitative. It might well make you weep, but it doesn’t earn the emotional release it’s attempting to elicit. Which is why I‘ve placed it last for the purposes of this review: September 11‘s best segments make you think long and hard about what exactly it means to live in a post-9/11 world, not simply a post-9/11 United States, while its worst go straight for the jugular by way of the tear ducts.
The special features included aren’t particularly “special”. We get trailers and “director profiles” — the sort of thing that can be easily found on IMDB or Wikipedia.