The Many Faces of 9/11

The multilingual, multicultural film ‘11’09’’01 – September 11’  is a collage of 11 different visualisations of what September 11, 2001 meant in different contexts.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm watched the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre ‘live’ on a television screen in a London hospital. He noted wryly how, in the attacks, ‘real life imitated Hollywood spectaculars’. He might have added that reel life would inevitably take over from where real life was to leave off on that fateful day.

It did, and did so with a vengeance, as witness how the period immediately following the attacks broke out in a rash of films – both docudramas and straightforward fictional representations – about ‘September 11’. (A quick Google search threw up 58 separate Wikipedia pages listing such films – not counting the many TV serials.) Many of these celluloid offerings demonstrated how, in Hobsbawm’s words once again,

(p)ublic mouths flooded the western world with froth as hacks searched for words about the unsayable and unfortunately found them.

This is not to say, however, that there were not some attempts to honestly say what was sayable about September 11, and say it with conviction, minus the hyperbole and self-righteous rhetoric Hobsbawm had in mind. The nineteenth anniversary of 9/11 – as the Americans like to refer to the day – is as good a time as any to take a look at one such effort – a film that is rarely watched today, though it did make a splash on first appearance, going on to win prizes at international festivals. I am talking about the film that bears the singular title 11’09’’01—September 11.

I said ‘film’, but 11’09’’01… is not one film but a collage of eleven, each 11 minutes, 9 seconds and 1 frame long, following the standard European  notation of the date to which they relate. Some of these filmlets were crafted around the actual happenings in New York on 9/11 ; a few others, asymptote-like, approach that theme but do not intersect with it at any point on the screen; while for the remaining films, the Twin Towers carnage is only a point of departure for their respective narratives.

Produced and conceptualised in Paris by Alain Brigand, the collage was helmed by the well-known French director, Claude Lelouch, whose own film forms part of this omnibus, the other directors being Samira Makhmalbaf (Iran), Youssef Chahine (Egypt), Danis Tanovic (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Idrissa Oue’draogo (Burkina-Faso), Ken Loach (UK), Alejandro Ina’rritu (Mexico), Amos Gitai (Israel), Mira Nair (India), Sean Penn (USA), and Shohei Imamura (Japan).

Each of these well-known film directors was asked to bring to the film their own perspective on 9/11, and all they were asked to conform to was the stipulated length of each effort. The individual segments carry no separate titles and are identified by the director and the country she/he comes from. Filmed in the main languages of the countries of origin and subtitled in English, French and Persian, 11’09’’01-September 11 premiered at the Venice film festival in September, 2002, and won the UNESCO award there, while Ken Loach’s segment won the FIPRESCI award for the festival’s Best Short Film.

The film did not open in the US until 2003, however, presumably because the distributors were not sure how a domestic audience would react to a movie which did not quite echo the dominant American narrative about 9/11: that September 11 announced the beginning of ‘a global struggle to the death between the causes of God and Satan’; or that 9/11 had changed everything. When it was eventually released in the US, it ran to mixed audience receptions. The nuanced narratives of some of the segments appear to have baffled even some critics, with one of them going so far as to dismiss most of the films as ‘self-indulgent tripe’.

Still from the film by Samira Makhmalbaf.

Of the five segments that play out in the shifting shadows of the crumbling Twin Towers, the one by Alejandro Ina’rritu confronts the viewer with a completely black screen for the most part, perhaps in a reaction to the oversaturated TV broadcasts of the inferno that became a norm for many months after 9/11. The screen’s blackness seems to deepen with haunting sound bites recorded both from ground zero of the disaster and elsewhere. About two minutes into the film the first, bleary image appears on the screen: that of a person falling from the tower to what could only have been sure death. Similar images burst through the dark screen off and on, sporadically, fleetingly, giving the viewing a traumatic quality, even as the voices of screaming and crying and praying humans are heard in rising and falling decibels to further accentuate the disorientation. It is only in the segment’s final half-minute that one catches a glimpse of the Twin Towers collapsing. Overall, it is a deeply unsettling viewing experience.

Lelouch’s French segment tells the story of an unusual relationship: that between a deaf-mute French woman photographer who has been living in the apartment of her American fiancé, a tourist guide for the disabled, not far from the World Trade Centre. The relationship has reached a dead end and when, in the morning of 9/11, the fiancé leaves for work though his lover desperately wants him to stay back, she decides that only a miracle can now keep them together. She begins writing him a farewell message on her laptop. He comes back after a while however, utterly devastated and covered in ash and dust:  he had taken his group on a tour of the Twin Towers where he escaped death only narrowly. The film ends with a TV grab of the burning towers, but there is also a hint that the lovers may not part ways after all. Lelouch’s film provides an interesting contrast to Ina’rritu’s: it is practically wordless, soundless, for Lelouch is navigating the world of the deaf-mute, while Ina’rritu works almost entirely through sound alone.

Mira Nair tells a real life story simply, but powerfully. Salim, the son of a devout Pakistani couple living in New York, leaves home in the morning on 9/11 and never comes back. His work was not expected to take him to the Twin Towers, and his family is aghast to learn that Salim is suspected of having been one of the terrorists/conspirators involved in that humongous tragedy. Neighbours begin to give the family a wide berth and the FBI repeatedly questions the mother, who remains convinced that her son could have had nothing to do with the ghastly attacks. Excruciatingly hurtful weeks go by, until the FBI investigation finally concedes that Salim, a trained paramedic, died on 9/11 at the Twin Towers trying to help victims of that mass slaughter. And that he had no call to be at the disaster scene, except the call of compassion and concern for others. A tearful but proud mother now bids her brave son a moving farewell.

Sean Penn’s idiosyncratic offering revolves around a lonely, elderly widower, possibly a patient of Alzheimer’s, so wrapped up in his little world of a tiny downtown apartment that he never gets to know that New York was being turned upside down right outside his window. As the towers go down, his apartment is suddenly bathed in bright light, prompting him to imagine that the withered flowers sitting in a vase on his table ever since his wife’s death, have come to life once again. When realisation sinks in that his wife is no more, he sheds bitter tears.

Still from Ken Loach’s brilliant film.

Of all the segments set in New York, Youseff Chahine’s is the most intriguing. The day before 9/11, a filmmaker begins to shoot for his film at the Twin Towers, but is shooed away by policemen for not having the necessary permissions. Over the next few days, he engages two ghosts – one a young US peacekeeping-force soldier killed in Lebanon and the other his assailant, a pro-Palestine Arab suicide-bomber – in animated debates about the futility of violence and the contradictions and hypocrisies of US foreign policy. It is a clumsy, rambling film that tries to pack too many things into its allotted eleven minutes

Samira Makhmalbaf’s is one of the four segments that foreground the theme of the carnage, but site it in different geographies. A young woman shepherds her class of impoverished Afghan refugee children in Iran into a dank, bare classroom and tries telling them of the catastrophe in New York and the many dead. Nothing registers with these kids, however, for they can only relate to the horrors they have known themselves. In the end, the exasperated teacher makes her class stand in mourning for the distant dead beside a smoking, soaring brick-kiln chimney — the nearest thing to the burning Twin Towers she can show to the kids. Meanwhile, the kids go on among themselves about God and his inscrutable ways, drawing upon their own dark life-experiences.

A still from Idrissa Oue’draogo’s film.

Idrissa Oue’draogo masks the tragedy of his native Burkina Faso in bitter humour. A boy from a desperately poor family thinks he has spotted the elusive Osama bin Laden in their town. He is determined to apprehend bin Laden with the help of his friends, hand him over to law enforcement, win the multi-million dollar reward, and buy school provisions as well as medicines for his sick mother.  The film unreels to trace the kids’ aborted adventure.

Amos Gitai recreates the hysteria around a suicide bombing in Jerusalem which coincides with the Twin Towers tragedy. A hectoring TV journalist collars frantic, overworked policemen and medics alike to glean air-worthy information from them. She triumphantly relays her report to her irate editor who finds it hard to convince her that she must lay off, for far more important news was coming out of New York just then.

Every month on the 11th, residents of Srebrenica mourn and remember their dead in the horrendous massacre of Bosnian citizens by Serbian soldiers on 11 July, 1995. The principal character in Danis Tanovic’s film refuses to allow the attacks of September 11 in New York to overshadow their demonstration scheduled for the day, though most of her friends would rather have it postponed.

Neither Ken Loach nor Shohei Imamura was prepared to fashion his own distinctive message around the here and now. Both look beyond the noise and chaos of the Twin Tower attacks to broader issues of recent history. Imamura’s story is set in the Japan of August, 1945, immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima. A soldier recently discharged from the Japanese army is convinced that he has turned into a snake. He moves and behaves like one, until one day when the family, unable to stand him any longer, drives him out into the forest. A flashback shows a superior officer in the army whipping him for his inability to ‘fight the Holy War’. The film ends as his wife, in a chance encounter, finds him lapping up water from a river exactly like a snake. “Do you so dislike being a man?” she asks him.

As he slithers and twists away across stones on the river-bank, the screen reads in large lettering: ‘Holy Wars do not exist’. Some of George Bush’s admirers saw this as a stern rebuke to the US President (who was diligently cultivating a macho image for himself then), while some others, understandably, liked to believe it was a ‘meaningless’ message. What is remarkable about Yoichi, the soldier, is that he is a throwback to an eponymous character in Imamura’s classic Black Rain where he suffers from a similar post-traumatic stress disorder upon return from war.

Still from the Shohei Imamura film.

But there is no question that the standout film of this collage is the segment by Ken Loach. In it Vladimir Vega, a renowned Chilean singer exiled in London, writes an open letter of sympathy and condolences to the friends and families of victims of the 9/11 terror attacks. Vega writes that he can well understand and feel their pain, for as Chileans, he and his countrymen have suffered the horrors of sustained and internationally-orchestrated terrorism themselves.

They can never forget that other September 11 in 1973 when a vicious coup, led by the treacherous army general Augusto Pinochet and financed and armed by President Nixon and the CIA, overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvadore Allende and plunged Chile in a long reign of terror. Vega wishes for the 9/11 victims to spare a thought for violated and wronged Chile. Loach uses graphic newsreel footage to trace the chain of events leading to the coup and the murder and mayhem the Pinochet regime unleashed on Chile after it. The voice-over is restrained but poignant, and never shrill. Having finished writing, Vega strums his guitar and sings a deeply moving song about his homeland and its people. This short film is surely among Loach’s best work.

The project 11’09’’01… was doubtless inspired by another portmanteau film to have come out of France in 1967. A collage of seven segments, that was a film about the Vietnam War titled Far From Vietnam. That both these films are now largely forgotten perhaps suggests that this is not a widely liked format. That does not necessarily mean, however, that it is not an artistically valid format. If nothing else, the cultural and stylistic plurality of 11’09’’01… makes it a film well worth revisiting.

Anjan Basu writes on a range of issues. He can be reached at [email protected].