#8: 11'09"01 (September 11th)|
(France, Iran, Egypt, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, UK, Mexico, Israel, India, USA, Japan, 2002; dirs. Samira Makhmalbaf, Claude Lelouch, Youssef Chahine, Danis Tanonić, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Ken Loach, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Amos Gitai, Mira Nair, Sean Penn, Shohei Imamura)
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On September 10, 2001, I showed Dancer in the Dark to a group of 16 first-year college students in the third class I ever taught, called "American Tragedies." After two weeks of reading classical Greek plays and some scholarship about those playsstressing how Athenians viewed the theater as an explicitly civic forum, and approached its mythic stories as barely-coded comments on their own era and polisI would lead students through ten weeks of theater from America's twentieth century, coaching them to interpret this material in light of U.S. politics and cultural debates. Dancer in the Dark, a hybrid, mannered, and music-filled work of metatheater, much like Athenian tragedies, capped off the prologue unit and paved the way for the main body of the course. On the morning of September 12, 2001, I emailed all these students to assure them we could cancel that evening's planned second screening of Dancer, and that each of them should feel free to be anywhere and with anyone that would help them through this shocking and painful moment. Every student but one opted to come to the screening. Many of their e-mails opined that it was going to be even harder on Wednesday than it had been on Monday to confront Dancer in the Dark's excoriating critiques of American xenophobia and penal culture, as well as its harsh view of Selma's distractions and self-delusions, blithe to worldly realities. For those very reasons, though, these same undergraduates thought this was exactly the right time to face these ideas, even as administered by a director who lambasted America without ever having been here.
I think often of my students' amazing and surprising fortitude in that moment, and of the discussions that followed. The memory was especially vivid a year later, when the anthology film 11'09"01 premiered at the Venice Film Festival, then traveled to Toronto, then moved onto two dozen other global markets before its quick, tiny, and barely-promoted release in the U.S.A. "Too soon," you heard a lot, when you heard anything about 11'09"01, as if it would have been better to postpone grappling with the emotions and political urgencies of the moment, or to avoid it altogether. "Too gimmicky," you heard as well, since the portmanteau's conceit was that eleven directors, hailing originally from eleven different countries, would each make a short film running eleven minutes, nine seconds, and one additional frame in response to the 9/11 attacks. (The title, changed to September 11th for U.S. exhibition, indicates this time signature and reflects how the majority of the globe places dates before monthshence, not 9'11"01). Within these imposed constraints, each filmmaker could work in any mode or style, fictional or documentary, polemical or soft-spoken, direct or oblique in relation to the events. Is there any reason why an apt short film about 9/11 would need to run eleven minutes and nine seconds long? Of course not. But I always felt, were I facing the prospect of making any film so soon after the attacks, I'd have been glad for any framework from which to start, allowing me to focus on a creative challenge and hopefully not feel overwhelmed by the tremendous political, ethical, and intellectual burdens. When I eventually saw the film in 2003, on the same campus where I had been teaching two years previously, I also appreciated the producers' wisdom in ensuring that nobody's work or implied national perspective got greater or lesser air time than the others.
"Too uneven" was another critique lobbed often at 11'09"01, as with every anthology film I can remember, though in this case the "too soon" claims, as much as I refused them, laid a salient, poignant context for the range of the filmmaker's responses. When we talk today about 9/11, we tend to flatten the event and the national or global mood, whether romantically ("Remember how we all came together?") or destructively (Us vs. Them, with or against, etc.). Indeed, that understandable, encapsulating urge already floated in the atmosphere mere days and weeks after the towers fell, the Pentagon split, and a field in Pennsylvania was scorched. But what I felt then and still remember was a much more inchoate mix of responses, internally and publicly: a sense of shock but also a feeling of tragic inevitability, a lot of flailing for plausible rationales but also a flotilla of evident reasons why They (sic) would "hate" Us (sic). I didn't expect artists to have firmer grips than anyone else did on what had happened, or why, or to whom: those who died? all New Yorkers? all Americans? the whole world? If their works struggled with paradox or ambivalence, or if the collection as a whole evinced reflex as well as reflection, sternness as well as sentimentality, that all computed to me. I wanted to see people take a risk on publicly thinking through a problem, and from a range of international perspectives; I neither expected nor hoped for a series of fixed pronouncements. Meanwhile, cinema and audiovisual media more generally were already endemic to much heated discourse after 9/11. Had the terrorists been inspired by copious Hollywood displays of complex archvillainy and vengeful conflagration? Would moviemaking or audience tolerance shift after this awful epiphany? Was footage of the World Trade Center circulating too freely in the wake of terrorism, converting gruesome images of as-yet-unknown but surely epochal ramification into overfamiliar iconography, desensitizing spectacle, fodder for propagandists? Given those alleged complicities and contact points between the events and their appearance in media, I for one thought it couldn't be "too soon" for filmmakers to prove that cinema could think, could act, could stoke conversation even when it showcased its own limits.
I went into 11'09"01 sympathetic on all these grounds, as eager for education as I was for solace. Unnevenness is a hard charge to dispute, but the shakier passages are eloquent almost for that very reason, and historically resonant. Claude Lelouch struggles to fit the events within an entirely private, nearly melodramatic frame, which is less surprising from him than it is from Sean Penn, whose plunge into mawkishness and fussy aesthetics was surely not what most folks expected from him, of all people. What, if anything, could it mean that the French and American entries were the most inclined toward pathos, even bathos? Youssef Chahine's entry feels formally broken and congested by barely-processed political anger, but why might that be the case, not just for Chahine (the star of his own entry, albeit played by an actor) but for the whole world of Arab cinema that he represents within this project? What are the pros and cons of Danis Tanović's and Ken Loach's impulses to evoke other political traumas, the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 and the Pinochet coup of 1973, which also transpired on September 11? Loach's plangent but measured documentary, devised with regular screenwriter Paul Laverty and exiled Chilean poet Vladimir Vega, is one of five or six contributions to 11'09"01 that still rank among the most indelible shorts I've ever seen, seeming all the more miraculous for the tricky context of their creation, albeit for different reasons. Alejandro González Iñárritu, known at that time for Amores perros alone, incensed a lot of people with his black-screen audio collage of weather reports, early distress signals, on-site calamity, emergency dispatches, and final phone calls from airplane passengers to their loved ones, occasionally punctured by short flash-cuts to the bodies falling from the top of the towers. It's a gut-churning eleven minutes, but I don't find it exploitative. It makes as gutsy a claim for unblinking candor in historical commemoration as Shohei Imamura makes for elliptical allegory, mounting a strange tale of World War II-era PTSD but with unmistakable prescience of the "holy war" soon to follow, in multiple directions. Most accomplished of all, at least to my mind, are the films by Iran's Samira Makhmalbaf and Burkina Faso's Idrissa Ouedraogo, sustaining their established artistic signatures and some generic traditions in the filmmaking of their countries, but honing them to unexpected and complicated points. Makhmalbaf, represented earlier on this countdown by Blackboards, again spins a story of how difficult it is to teach a fair grasp of world events within a state of emergency, especially with scarce resources and urgent needs to save your skin before opening your mind. Ouedraogo offers a comedy, limned throughout by sorrow and need, about a group of teenage boys in Ouagadougou who are eager to capture Osama bin Laden so they can use the reward money to tend to sick relatives. They're convinced they spot him in downtown Ouaga, a farcical error that also underscores how quickly bin Laden became a focal point for universal projection, and how so much of the world proved unable or unwilling to distinguish one robed, bearded, and turbaned Middle Eastern man from another.
Makhmalbaf's and Ouedraogo's films are brilliantly accessible, even and deliberately to children. To fully grasp their tones and premises though, including her blending of documentary reality with fictional parable and his adoption of seriocomic homily as ideological critique, requires some exposure to Iranian and Burkinabe filmmaking, or to Middle Eastern and West African cinemas more broadly. I suspect this was another reason the U.S. market didn't handle 11'09"01 all that well, but I appreciated having my own literacies both rewarded and challenged, and I quickly perceived another pedagogical opportunity. Within two years, on the same campus, I assembled another course called "International Cinema and Global Politics" where participants watched 11'09"01 in the first week, unpacking the themes and styles of each entry and the different messages they implied about what is most fraught or essential in each vantage on September 11by that point already ensconced as the false catalyst for the Iraq War, as well as a historical catastrophe in its own right. In the ensuing eleven weeks, we watched an emblematic feature and read associated criticism from most of the eleven countries in play before circling back in Week 13 to 11'09"01, cataloguing how we were seeing, thinking, and reacting differently after this intensive primer in world epistemologies, whether scholarly, journalistic, or artistic. This might stand as the most rewarding teaching experience of my career so far, and it profited me as much as I hope it did my pupils. While the course expanded on the framework provided by 11'09"01, it also sustained what that project's brave participants had already manifested: a willingness to represent before anyone could possibly be confident of having a right answer; an eclecticism guaranteed to augment our thinking rather than forestalling it; and a sober trust that cinema, too often seized as a forum for one-sided demagoguery or thoughtless pornoviolence, can also be a meeting-ground, a negotiating table, and a haven for moral reflection.