Sunday, September 11, 2011

SEPTEMBER 11 (11'9"01, 2002)

Has it been nine years already? Was it that long ago that Alain Brigand's portmanteau production premiered around the world. Maybe it doesn't seem that long ago to me, as an American, because it didn't premiere in my country until the summer of 2003. I remember that there was some concern that certain episodes might offend overly sensitive Americans, or that some were downright anti-American. I've had the DVD for awhile but haven't gotten around to watching it until this oppressively commemorative weekend. The anthology's reputation promised an antidote to the monotony of mood prevailing during the extended observance of what the vulgar call the "ten year anniversary" of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. I dimly remembered what the various segments were about from the reviews I read, but I wasn't sure what attitude I might encounter. I ended up being surprised at the prevalence of irreverence over solemnity or stridency. Brigand promised his eleven directors "complete freedom of expression" as long as their segments wrapped up in eleven minutes, nine seconds and one frame of film. It wasn't nine minutes, eleven seconds and one frame because this was a European project and they put the day before the month, sensibly enough, and that gave the directors more time to work with. As for complete freedom of expression, judge for yourselves.
Brigand opens provocatively with a segment by an Iranian director, Samira Makhmalbaf, which sets the irreverent tone that keeps creeping into the proceedings. Her episode is a kind of thematic sequel to her movie Blackboards, since it focuses on a teacher desperate to impart knowledge to people mainly concerned with survival. It takes place in an Iranian refugee camp for Afghans where the children help make bricks in biblical fashion until a teacher lures them into a makeshift classroom. The day, of course, is September 11, 2001, and the teacher wants to tell her students that something of global importance has happened. But they know already: two people fell down a deep well, and one or both may be dead. She's clearly freaked out and expecting nuclear war ("You can't stop atom bombs with bricks," she tells the workers) but her explanation of what's happened in New York, and her insistence on a moment of silence only inspires a childish debate on whether God actually kills people and why he might be crazy enough to do so. Finally, to get them to at least visualize the enormity of the event, she takes them to the base of a tall brick-kiln smokestack and hopes they can imagine it falling. Whether they do remains uncertain.
How many heavyweight French directors turned Brigand down, do you imagine, before he finally recruited Claude Lelouch? He had his moment in the sun with A Man and a Woman back in the Sixties, but I doubt anyone would automatically think of him representing his country in this sort of project. Nor does he do his nation much credit with a gimmicky segment about the stormy romance of two French deaf-mutes living in New York and apparently breaking up on the dread day. In a gambit that makes his episode a bookend to another we'll see later, Lelouch films without sound to emphasize his characters' obliviousness to the awful events playing out on a nearby TV screen. He aims at empathy with the bereaved by teasing a lover's regret at wishing her beloved gone without realizing that he may well be very gone -- but the sooty reappearance of the beloved, who's apparently had a very eventful day, allows for a cheap, happyish ending. This may be the lamest segment of the film.
But it has competition from Egypt's Youssef Chahine, the only director narcissist enough to put himself in his segment. He's just returned from New York as the disaster happens, and is pressed by a female reporter to comment on it at a press conference. He begs off, needing time to think, and goes to Lebanon, where he meets the ghost of an American soldier killed in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing. The ghost, who proves to have once been the fiance of the reporter, asks for empathy for his and other Americans' suffering, while the director is torn between his humanist instinct and his desire to reprimand an American for his insensitivity toward the victims of American violence. Still, he finally feels compelled to visit the soldier's grave at Arlington, where he meets the reporter again, as well as the soldier's father and the ghost of a suicide bomber who chides Chahine for showing sympathy to an enemy. Sometimes you try to do the right thing and you just can't win, and that pretty much describes Chahine's segment. But his heart was in the right place.
Bosnian director Denis Tanovic (of No Man's Land fame) contributes a trifle that takes the news from New York to a small town that holds a vigil on the 11th of each month to remember the Srebrenica massacre. It focuses on the friendship of a wheelchair-bound man and a young woman who lost loved ones in the massacre. It's one of several episodes that implicitly deny the centrality of the attacks on America by emphasizing the preoccupations, rational and irrational, of other peoples and nations. In this case, there's a call to cancel the monthly vigil because of the atrocities in America, but the protagonists insist on carrying on as usual to honor both their own losses and those of the Americans. The episode is well-meaning and unobjectionable but is also probably the least memorable of all the segments.
The goofiest segment by a wide margin comes from Burkina Faso and director Idrissa Ouedraogo. It has the naive absurdity of an Our Gang short, as a group of young protagonists become convinced that Osama bin Laden is hiding in their town and hope to collect the $25,000,000 bounty by capturing the terrorist leader. The kids seem to have some visual basis for their suspicion, but their target, whoever he may be, proves slippery, altering his itinerary whenever they plan an ambush. The boys rush about hoping to nab him with spears and machetes, only to see him disappear into an airport, where a guard insists firmly that bin Laden is not in the country. But as far as they're concerned, their chance at fame and fortune is flying away. Hope springs eternal, however, since President Bush may visit the country soon. Surely he'd be worth a large ransom, wouldn't he?... I'm not sure what point Ouedraogo wanted to make with that apparition of bin Laden, but I found this episode charmingly silly and admired its inclusion in the anthology.
A couple of the directors are ringers insofar as they don't actually represent their nation's reaction to or reflections on the terror attacks. One of these is the U.K.'s Ken Loach, who uses his time to commemorate the events of September 11, 1973 -- the day when a military coup overthrew the democratically elected Marxist government of Chile. Narrated by a Chilean exile in London, this is a mostly documentary segment with stark, dramatic footage of the Chilean upheaval, perpetrated with American encouragement, climaxing with black and white footage of a burning building, the presidential palace blasted by bombs from a seditious air force. This is the sort of segment Americans were probably expected to bristle at, but Loach's point is not to suggest that the U.S. deserved what it got because of its role in the Chilean coup. Instead, we should take its closing lines at face value; the Chileans will empathize with Americans every September 11, and hope that Americans will someday reciprocate.
If Claude Lelouch can get away with a silent segment, then Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu will try to top him with a mostly sightless segment. He confronts us with a black screen as he builds a tower of found sounds from September 11, from the noise of explosions and crashes to the angry words of call-in ranters. Every so often the screen will flicker to life with footage of people jumping from the twin towers, and it will roar to life with footage of the towers falling -- only then the screen goes silent. The screen finally lightens so Inarritu can close with the textual question, in Arabic and English, "Does the light of God guide or blind us?" His is probably the sort of segment most people would have expected from this film. It's the only one that confronts the attacks directly or tries to convey the horror of them without a mediating personal or national perspective. As such, apart from the technical gimmickry, it's one of the least imaginative segments, though it may well have the purest raw power.
Israeli director Amos Gitai takes a "welcome to our world" stance, showing us a car bombing in his own country that gets upstaged by the news from New York to the chagrin of a pushy TV reporter. In a hard-boiled segment shot in a single take, Gitai illustrates the terrible normality of violence in Israel by showing reporters, first responders, police and bystanders all jostling for space and attention in the absence of the awe Americans felt during their own admittedly much larger disaster. The overall effect is blackly comic, though I'm not sure if Gitai really meant it that way.
The other ringer in the picture is Mira Nair, who while officially representing India contributes what's really the first of two American episodes. Based on true events, it follows an Indian Muslim family's trauma as their son goes missing on September 11 and becomes a terror suspect. His family is questioned by the FBI and increasingly shunned by their New York neighbors until the truth is recovered from the Ground Zero wreckage. The son, a onetime police cadet, had volunteered on the spot to aid rescue efforts and had fallen with the towers, dying a hero. This is the one segment I can envision being expanded into a feature film and improved by the expansion. As it is, Nair's segment is no great exercise in style, but the story has a truthful simplicity that's impossible to botch.
The official American episode comes from Sean Penn, who directs arguably the most crassly audacious segment of all. It is likely to offend, not because it makes any provocative political statement of the sort you might expect from Penn, but because it commits a twofold atrocity. It uses the destruction of the towers as a sight gag, and it compels us to look at Ernest Borgnine, admittedly then still a spring chicken of 85 years, in his underwear.  The mighty Borgnine plays a slightly senile widower who talks to his dead wife regularly and seems to live mostly in his own little skyscraper-shadowed world where he can't get a potted plant to grow. In a daringly obscene bit of magical realism, the fall of the first tower allows a strong ray of sunlight to shine into Borgnine's bedroom (the historic pall of smoke notwithstanding) and not only wake him but bring his potted plant to fully blooming life. The old man is overjoyed at the miracle and tries to share his joy with his beloved wife, but in a moment of illumination, if you will, he tearfully acknowledges that she simply isn't there. You may not believe what you've seen -- that is, you may not believe that Penn actually conceived and directed such an outlandish anecdote, but the episode has a primitive power in its preposterous play for pathos like something out of classic silent film.
The elder statesman of the creative team was Japan's Shohei Imamura, and that earns him the chance to top the Penn segment. In his final cinematic work, the great man tops the project with a dollop of "WTF???" in the form of a period piece set at the end of World War II. His protagonist is a demobilized Japanese soldier who's Kafkaesque reaction to the horrors of war is to become a snake. That is, he crawls about on his belly, never uses his hands, swallows rats and tries to bite people. It's all very interesting in a demented way, but its relevance to the overall project is tenuous or tangential at best. The problem isn't that it doesn't refer to the 2001 attacks directly, but that Imamura imposes relevance simply by inserting a sentence in which an officer declares the Japanese aggression a "holy war" and closing his segment, and the film, with the bald statement (pay attention, Muslims!) that "there is no such thing as a holy war." Thanks for clearing that up, Imamura-san!

So did you expect something besides a mixed bag? Had every segment been as sensitive and appropriate as some may yet think correct, had the whole film been about heroism or resilience or whatever the official theme of the decade is, it would have been intolerable. Instead, it's as wild and erratic an anthology film as you'll probably ever see, and that, the faults of individual episodes notwithstanding, is a good thing. Does it do justice to the event? I'm not sure. Does it honor people's losses? That doesn't matter. September 11 succeeds as a cinematic event and a collective, kaleidoscopic portrait of a moment in history, and it should have been part of somebody's television schedule during the commemorative weekend. Of course, you can watch it whenever you want if you can find a copy, and its historical value alone makes it worth your effort.

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