11'09''01- September 11 - from Samira Makhmalbaf's episode

11’09”01- September 11 (2002)

Prod: Alain Brigand

Dir(s): Youssef Chahine; Amos Gitai; Alejandro González Iñárritu; Shohei Imamura; Claude Lelouch; Ken Loach; Samira Makhmalbaf; Mira Nair; Idrissa Ouedraogo; Sean Penn; Danis Tanovic

In a rather belligerent recent review of the omnibus film, 11’09”01, writer Peter Matthews states that this film “virtually defines bad faith” (Sight & Sound, January, 2003). He doesn’t really make an argument to why this is the case. The film consists of 11 short films from established directors who were all asked to respond to the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York City, and of the Pentagon in Washington, on September 11th 2001. Though Matthews admits that “mainstream media coverage of the calamity should be challenged” he immediately qualifies the statement by arguing against the “all-star auterist concept”, which he obviously believes the film represents. He never makes clear what form such a filmic “challenge” should take.

Anthology films are, if not exactly a staple of cinema, not entirely unknown. It is also not unprecedented that directors come together to critically examine political and social events. Two films that immediately came to my mind when I was watching 11’09”01 were Far From Vietnam (1967) and Germany in Autumn (1978). The former consists of a group of French directors (including Godard, Marker, Varda and Resnais) who each contribute an episode examining European and American involvement in the Vietnamese Civil War. Germany in Autumn consists of German directors attempting to make sense of a disintegrating West German civil culture being split apart from the symbiotic relationship between guerrilla and state terrorism. And just like those two films, 11’09”01 is fragmentary, uneven and unsatisfying. But I think it’s both critically and politically naïve to argue against filmmakers and artists attempting to create meaning out of historical events. Matthews – and he’s not alone in Anglo/European responses to this film – seems to believe that somehow the calamity of the attacks on the USA creates a sacred space in which argument, questioning and representation are ipso facto immoral. A re-writing of Adorno, if you like. After New York City are all attempts at poetry, barbarism?

I don’t think so. In fact, responses – political, analytical and poetic – are an imperative. If there is barbarism in 11’09”01, it is at the level of aesthetic choice. The worst episode in the film is from French director Claude Lelouch who by attempting to build a romantic narrative around the events of that one day manages to diminish the tragedy and to trivialise political conclusions. It is indulgent and just plain stupid to use the terrorist bombings as a backdrop to a misunderstanding between a deaf French woman and her American boyfriend. I was also similarly uncomfortable by both Sean Penn’s and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s contributions (as I will try to explain below) but it was really only Lelouch’s film that made me want to pelt the screen. However, his miscalculation does not, for me, compromise the intentions of the film overall. It is precisely because the events of 11th September 2001 had and continue to have effects on both local and global levels that this film’s attempt to create a dialogue between filmmakers and audiences is important. The bombing of the United States of America resulted in not only individual tragedy but also a re-configuration of global politics and surveillance, and a concurrent declaration of a “War on Terrorism” which has manifest implications for societies and nation-states across the globe. 11’09”01 probably fails miserably to do justice to the full implications of the bombings and subsequent declarations of war, but it is at least an attempt towards dialogue, and in canvassing responses from filmmakers across four continents, it counters the aggressiveness of Western media distillations of the event.

It is an acute awareness of political effect and the importance of understanding history that makes for the best episodes in 11’09”01. The film begins in spectacular fashion with an episode directed by Samira Makhmalbaf. I thought Blackboards one of the best allegories of war I had ever seen and, in a sense, her episode in this film is an allegory about peace. A schoolteacher attempts to explain the significance of events in New York City to a group of refugee Afghan children whose knowledge of the world is bound by their immediate village and surrounds. With no television and lacking the rudiments of educational resources in their refugee camp, the teacher takes them outside to a chimney, points to it, and gets the children to imagine it is a tower and what the consequences would be if it were to be knocked down. The message is simply and beautifully conveyed within the economy set by the 11 minutes of screen time. The episode reminds us that it takes more than media images to make sense of tragedy and history. It also reminds us of the crucial role of education and knowledge in creating the space for empathy and understanding, especially across vast differences of privilege and opportunity. The episode achieves its emotional effect without sentimentality and with intellectual integrity. In the present fractious, war-mongering times, it seems like a small miracle.

Youssef Chahine’s contribution is fucking great. I’m using the expletive to convey how strongly I feel about this episode, particularly because it has come under attack by many critics who detest its polemics and its intentions. Combining melodramatic excess with personal reflection, it is the story of a film director who cancels a press interview after hearing of the bombings in the USA, and then is confronted by the ghosts of two soldiers who demand of him that their individual stories be told. One of the ghosts is a US Marine who was killed during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1983. The other ghost is that of a Palestinian youth, killed as part of the Israeli suppression of the Intifada. Hollywood has trained us so well in cultural myopia that we take it for granted in blockbuster movies that cops in Moscow or Tel Aviv or Paris speak in broken English. It is therefore confronting when Chahine presents us with an obviously fake restaging of the New York bombings in which the cops speak in Arabic. I don’t think this is a cheap effect, but rather a device by which we are being asked to contemplate the nature of “truth” and media. Chahine is the only Arabic director involved in 11’09”01 and his episode conveys the tortured position for any Arab intellectual or artist who has to respond to the undeniable tragedy of the bombings in New York City but who cannot forget the devastating consequences on the Arab world of a century of American political and economic interference and manipulation. I think this episode comes closest to anything I have read or have seen expressing the undeniable confusion that affects some of us when it comes to trying to make sense of the bombings in New York City and their consequences. The most devastating moment in this sequence occurs when, as the American ghost harangues the filmmaker for ignoring American deaths, American tragedy, the filmmaker erupts with a furious tirade against the hypocrisy of USA democratic ideology. The attack is not against the idea of democracy as much as it is an attack on the failure of Western citizens to take responsibility for their democracies, to take the fact of democracy seriously. This is precisely why I felt this moment as if it were a sting against my face, for the impassioned anger is just: it also made me want to argue and to debate the film. I consider this a sign of an intelligent and sobering work. Conservative critics read this as Chahine’s apportioning blame to the USA, and they condemn him for it. (Their basic hypocrisy may be gauged in their readiness, however, to ask the whole of the “Arab world” to shoulder responsibility for the actions of individual terrorists).

11'09''01- September 11 - from Ken Loach's episode

The one other brilliant episode in the film comes from English director, Ken Loach. Structured as a letter from a Chilean refugee to the survivors of the bombings in New York City, the letter investigates events that occurred in Chile on September 11th, 1973, when the democratically elected Socialist Allende government was toppled by a US assisted military coup. It is 11’09”01‘s most emotionally affecting episode, possibly because the refugee’s stark first-hand memories movingly describe the crushed hopes and the subsequent suffering of the Chilean population. Similarly to Makhmalbaf, Loach uses his 11 minutes economically and with clear intentions. This episode has clear propaganda intent: to remind an audience of a shameful episode in United States policy. What is, however, remarkable about this episode is that this remembrance in no way diminishes the tragedy of what happened on September 11th 28 years later. By presenting his polemic within the context of a refugee’s impassioned letter the episode is not as much seeking to assign blame – the strength of its polemic is precisely in knowing where blame does lie – but rather in making the crucial link between compassion, understanding and history.

None of the other episodes comes close to the emotional power or intellectual rigour of Chahine, Loach and Makhmalbaf’s work. I admired the episodes from Shohei Imamura and Idrissa Ouedraogo and Danis Tanovic. I was disappointed in the episode directed by Mira Nair (though it did have one beautiful image of Christians, Jews and Muslims praying in a Mosque which was exquisitely tender and sad in its humanist yearnings) and disappointed in the sequence by Amos Gitai. Nair’s episode was overtly sentimental and I thought Gitai’s ill-developed and weakly written. However, I did think them both honest attempts to deal with the legacy and tragedy of the events.

Sean Penn’s short film, like Lelouch’s episode, attempts to illuminate the larger political tragedy by distilling it into a personal narrative of a drunken old man who lives in the shadows of the World Trade Centre towers. It’s not as offensively silly as the Lelouch but neither is it successful. In choosing the romance of narrative over the challenge of politics, it’s also lazy. I’m not claiming that narrative can’t work in this context because it does for Ouedraogo, Makhmalbaf and for Tanovic. But they do not attempt to create their fictional stories out of the immediate events and vicinity of the bombings. Penn’s attempt to align an individual’s mourning and grief to the grief of the bombings doesn’t work. And the final moment of “magic realism” is like that splash of red in Schindler’s List. It’s hollow and cheap.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s episode is visually and aurally assertive and commanding but it is also morally disturbing. An initial black screen flashes intermittently with slow-motion footage of people suiciding from the collapsing, burning World Trade Centre buildings. The effect is mesmerising but I was disturbed by the footage of actual suffering being utilised in an experimental form. Part of my unease arises from the confusion of media images with the actual blood, tears and flesh that is real tragedy. In a sense, the morally most ambiguous work in 11’09”01 comes from directors who mistake the reality of media for the real physical manifestations of the bombing. Lelouch, Iñárritu and to some extent Penn filter tragedy through the images we saw on our television sets. Those images were powerful and horrific but they were also images that can be manipulated, utilised and suppressed. The best works in this film are those that come from directors who know very well that the media imagery or artistic representation is never the foundation of reality but only an interpretation. I think that what made me uneasy with the Iñárritu sequence has to do with questions that disturb me about the film in its totality. I wish the impetus had been collaborative, had emerged from the directors and writers themselves. I think there would have been a clearer purpose to 11’09”01 itself if the politics and aesthetic choices had been argued for and developed within such a collaborative process. But I also acknowledge that this is a somewhat nostalgic response, that the spaces for such collaboration among filmmakers are no longer prevalent. The gimmick of each episode having to be 11 minutes nine seconds and one frame long is the most cringe-worthy aspect of the production. A time limit may be necessary but it should emerge organically from the filmmakers’ intentions. I don’t even think the use of such a ‘gimmick’ is necessarily cynical. Again, it is simply a sign of the poverty of intellectual and political communication between filmmakers and audiences that lame marketing ideas can be seen as appropriate to an examination of terror, war and exploitation.

But with all my reservations, I don’t think the film emerges from “bad faith”. I certainly don’t think that anyone can claim that for Mahkmalbaf, Loach or Chahine’s contributions, and to be scrupulously fair, I couldn’t claim it for any of the directors. Stupidity is not the same as bad faith. I think Peter Matthews may be confusing “bad faith” with ideology. But I suspect that the word “ideology” frightens many of the contemporary film critics and they don’t wish it existed. Or they may believe it is part of a now no longer relevant politics. But I fear it may be difficult to come to a clear sense of the events of September 11th, 2001 (or of September 11th, 1973) without some knowledge of that word. As the best films make clear in this anthology, the tragic events in New York City were both a unique historic moment and also a part of a continuum of injustice and desperation. We need films, books, debates and arguments that enable us to gain an understanding of the difficult, complex and tragic histories that have given rise to the “wars of terrorism”. We particularly require such interventions in a time when most political and religious leaders, and the majority of our media, refuse to engage in such a dialogue. I wish 11’09”01 was better. I hope it’s not all the world’s filmmakers are now capable of offering us.

About The Author

Christos Tsiolkas is a novelist, playwright, critic and screenwriter. His novels include Loaded, Dead Europe and The Slap. He has been a passionate cineaste since Ivan Hutchinson led him through the looking glass when he was just a little boy.