11 Masters Respond to Tragedy with "11" 09' 01"
by Howard Feinstein
"11"9'01" is an unusual title for an unusual tragedy -- and these areunusual responses by 11 internationally renowned filmmakers (including Shohei Imamura, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and, yes, even amourmeister Claude Lelouch). The moniker is the European way of writing the date of the World Trade Center disaster, as well as the precise length of the segments created with complete autonomy by each of the filmmakers (11 minutes, nine seconds, one frame). All are very well made, and almost all are exceptionally provocative in an American context: Yes, it was horrible, but remember, we have had our share of violence from outside, most seem to say.
Sean Penn and Mira Nair are the only two directors involved in this French-produced omnibus film (Galatee Films and Studio Canal), scheduled for worldwide release on September 11, who reside in the U.S. Their sections lie on opposite ends of the tragic spectrum. Penn highlights our blindness: Ernest Borgnine returns to the screen as an old, dotty widower who is so absorbed in his own world that his eyes register not the horrible images of crumbling towers from the TV, but instead focus on a flower arrangement.
Nair, from India but New York-based, focuses rather on someone unable to don blinkers: The protagonist is a Muslim from Pakistan who now lives in New York and whose son disappears on September 11. Already in shock that he is one of the missing, she is harassed by federal authorities who brand the "good American boy" a possible terrorist. He turns out to have been a hero. Criticism comes from the domestic side, too.
The producers told all of the directors to use the WTC trauma as a point of departure, maybe even relating it to something in their own national experience. Bosnian Danis Tanovic, whose "No Man's Land" won this year's Oscar for best foreign-language film, is one who chooses to remind Americans that his country suffered greatly. He sets his piece in the town of Srebenica, where Serbs massacred 8,000 Muslim men on July 11, 1995. The widows who protest such horror on the 11th of every month in the town square hold back for a while on 9/11, but suddenly begin to leave the television around which they are grouped to fight their own non-violent battle. Implicit is the suggestion that the U.S. did next to nothing for them when they were engulfed in war.
While entirely sympathetic to American pain, Brit Ken Loach reprimands the U.S. for its interference in the affairs of Chile. A singer, a longtime Chilean exile in London, writes a letter on the anniversary of the WTC disaster to Americans who lost loved ones the year before. Yet he reminds them, backed with horrifying but brilliant archival footage, of the U.S. government's complicity in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 -- on September 11.
Veteran Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, an Arab Christian, is less diplomatic. A filmmaker, a surrogate for Chahine himself, cancels a proposed shoot in New York after the towers fall, and goes off to reflect on a deserted beach. There he meets a phantom soldier, the ghost of an American killed in Lebanon in 1983. Later, he meets with the parents of a Palestinian suicide bomber ("Bush decides who the terrorists are," the father says), who convey to him the constant humiliation they have lived under for years. Then he encounters the bomber's ghost as well -- in Arlington National Cemetery, at the grave of the American GI. (Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai directs a tale of the aftereffects of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, on September 11, 2001, at which Israeli journalists are too wrapped up in their own problems to engage in those of the U.S.)
The young Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf creates the most gentle segment, and it is poignant indeed. In an impoverished village, a young Iranian schoolteacher tries to convey to her six-year-old Afghan emigre students the scope of the WTC tragedy. She has them stand next to a brick kiln tower to give them some scale of the event. The children say they are more familiar with horrors that befell their families directly, like one child's tale of a female relative buried in the sand and stoned to death by the Taliban (which the U.S. was then supporting) for adultery. The weight of this whole project, a thoughtful, if critical, thud on the American conscience, makes one yearn for the sweet Afghan kids in the dusty school. "It's good that you are children," says the chador-clad teacher. "Keep your innocence."