Despite its success last fall at film festivals in Canada and Italy, and even though it features the work of several internationally known directors, 11’09”1”’ — September 11 has still not been released in the United States. Its distributors apparently fear that America will take offense. And some of the movie is clearly calculated to offend Americans, yet there are other parts that viewers of any nationality and political persuasion should find moving and thoughtful.
The movie is made up of 11 short films — each precisely 11 minutes, 9.1 seconds long — by 11 directors from 11 different countries. Most of the stories are about ordinary people far away from New York and Washington whose lives are affected indirectly by the terrorist attacks.
“The world has gone mad,” says a man in an East African marketplace, cradling his head in his hands, after he hears the news on the radio. A teacher tells her class of Afghan refugee children to keep a moment of silence for the dead. Bosnian women turn a protest march into a ceremony of mourning for those in the States.
In two cases, the conceit of international solidarity rings hollow. The left-wing British director Ken Loach contributes a mini-documentary about the 1973 overthrow of the Allende government in Chile, which also occurred on a Tuesday, September 11th. One needn’t justify the actions of Pinochet, Nixon or Kissinger to conclude that this bit of propaganda is out of place here. Since Loach suggests no link between the events, the point seems to be simply that the U.S. had it coming.
That claim is even clearer in the Egyptian entry, in which a movie director confronts the ghost of one of the U.S. Marines killed in Beirut in 1983, reminding him of America’s millions of victims from Vietnam to Iraq. The Marine is appropriately remorseful, and his interlocutor explains that he has been misled. The young fighting man is thus another victim of American power.
The Japanese episode, which is set in 1945, ends with the slogan: “There are no holy wars.” The explicit target here is the Japanese Imperial Army, and by extension al-Qaeda, but given that the segment also mentions Hiroshima, we may infer an equal condemnation of any “holy wars” that America might think to wage in response to 9/11.
The Israeli entry, a bit of black humor set in the aftermath of a suicide bomber’s attack in Tel Aviv, mocks the efforts of journalists (and filmmakers) to make sense out of violence by putting it into moral or historical perspective.
Many will also regard it as black humor that the American episode is directed by Sean Penn. In it, Ernest Borgnine plays a lonely old man living in a New York apartment with a light-starved plant, holding imaginary conversations with his late wife. When the Twin Towers fall, the sunlight is unblocked and the flowers on his windowsill bloom. The point seems to be that 9/11 was a wake-up call (an alarm clock is prominently featured) and, though it meant the loss of comforting illusions, an opportunity for growth and change.
Only three films deal directly with victims of the attacks. The Indian director Mira Nair tells the true story of a Pakistani immigrant living in New York who was suspected of complicity with the terrorists — until it was discovered that he died trying to save lives at the World Trade Center.
Claude Lelouch’s fictional tale, of a deaf Frenchwoman whose lover goes to the WTC on its last morning, is a poignant illustration of history brutally intruding onto private life.
The finest of the 11 films is also the hardest to watch, precisely because there is so little to see. The Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu keeps the screen black for almost the entire time, occasionally flashing one of those obscene images of people falling from the Towers. The soundtrack is a jumble of sounds, including fragments of news reports and an answering machine message from one of the plane’s passengers to her child. You strain to see and hear, yet you can hardly bear to do so.