Has the cinema brought about September 11? Did the terrorists learn their tactics from the action blockbusters of Hollywood? Is the cinema culpable? Such questions presuppose that the cinema can determine or influence events. It is important to remember that the cinema’s influence cuts both ways. President Reagan, after all, named his Strategic Defense Initiative after Star Wars. The Pentagon, following September 11, was reported to have consulted Hollywood filmmakers (including directors David Fincher and Spike Jonze) on possible terrorist threats and how to combat them. A few years ago, the South Korean army was said to have used the movie Shiri (released in 1999, about North Korean terrorists carrying out their plan to assassinate the President of South Korea and start a war) as a required textbook for the army to learn how to deter terrorists. The movies have a prophetic sensibility that are exploited by both sides (assuming that the terrorists did learn their tactics from the movies). The question now is how will September 11 affect the cinema?

America entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Its film industry turned out a spate of crude propaganda movies, often featuring John Wayne, Randolph Scott, or Errol Flynn, single-handedly fighting the enemy. Though there were exceptions, such as John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945), this trend went on for the duration of the war. It was not a good period for the movies, I don’t think. Following September 11, the fear is that Hollywood may lose itself in self-righteousness and self-justification, resulting in a more bellicose and nationalistic cinema in order to placate the public mood (not only in the United States but throughout the so-called “free world”). There will be more emphasis, not less, on special effects; more attempts to demonize the Muslim world. In fact, Hollywood was heading in this direction even before September 11. Will Hollywood now become even more xenophobic, much less tolerant of cultural difference? Because of Hollywood’s global commercial interests, the answer is probably negative in the final analysis, but it is incumbent on the cinemas of the rest of the world to take on the responsibility of comprehending September 11 without fear or favour in order to lessen the likelihood of a more bellicose Hollywood (a role model could be the Iranian cinema whose humanist aesthetics could act as a powerful antidote to fear-mongering). As America goes to war once more, the rest of us should assert the primacy of cultural understanding and the pluralism of the cinema.

About The Author

Stephen Teo's latest book Wong Kar-wai is published by the British Film Institute. He is the author of Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (London: British Film Institute, 1997) and is currently writing Johnnie Gets His Gun: The Action Films of Johnnie To, for the Hong Kong University Press.