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September 11

September 11
Empire Pictures
2002 / Color / 1:85 flat letterbox / 134 min. / 11'09''01 - September 11 / Street Date October 26, 2004 / 29.98
Cinematography: Samuel Bayer, Luc Drion, Ebrahim Ghafori, Pierre-William Glenn, Yoav Kosh, Mustafa Mustafic, Jorge Muller Silva, Mohsen Nasr, Masakazu Oka, Declan Quinn, Nigel Willoughby
Original Music: Michael Brook, Mohammad Reza Darvishi, Alexandre Desplat, Manu Dibango, Osvaldo Golijov, Taroh Iwashiro, Salif Keita, Heitor Pereira, Gustavo Santaolalla, Vladimir Vega
Produced by
Alain Brigand
Directed by: Youssef Chahine, Amos Gitai, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Shohei Imamura, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Samira Makhmalbaf, Mira Nair, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Sean Penn, Danis Tanovic

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This compilation film is a series of 'artist's responses' to the World Trade Center 9-11 attack that's understandably a mixed bag of thoughtful and well-meaning responses. They vary from facing the subject directly to abstract statements that would not by themselves seem to have any particular association with the attacks.

The only thing in common with these films is their lack of flag-waving. September 11's contributing American filmmaker is Sean Penn. Neocons will not see their viewpoint (the one easily accessible in the mass media) represented here. Several of the eleven international filmmakers take the point of view that America is not the innocent victim of a political outrage. 9-11 is only one of a dozen subjects that cannot be discussed honestly in our 'free' society without inviting rage and scorn.

As with any collection of independent short films, the quality varies greatly.

The film's sober interstitial animation shows a world globe with international clocks ticking a countdown to the attacks. Various parts of the world light up and the director of each segment is identified to cue the eleven films, each of which is eleven minutes long.

Sean Penn's is easily the most incoherent. Ernest Borgnine might be Marty 45 years later, living in a one-room flat and grieving the loss of his wife. We see him set out her clothes, talk to himself and cry in a nicely toned-down performance. He has a pot of flowers on the window sill that won't grow because no light hits them; when the towers fall, the sun shines in and the flowers bloom magically. If there's a message here it can only be a pretty perverse one; the movie is like a student film done up by a quality director.

Hot director Alejandro González Iñárritu's film is a bothersome focus on the immediate disaster and the only one to be made completely from found docu materials. most of the running time is a cacaphonous audio montage over black, with flashes of 9-11 horror showing through, mainly brief shots of hapless victims falling from the towers. The eventual worth of this short also escapes me.

Some of the foreign filmmakers attempt more ambitious statements that still fall short of the mark. African Idrissa Ouedraogo tells the tale of an impoverished kid in an equatorial town who has to quit school because of his ailing mother. He thinks he sees Osama Bin Laden and organizes his friends to capture him, for the $25 million in reward money promised by George W. Bush. It's well done, but I'm not sure what the real point is, except that the news of the attacks hits other countries completely differently.

Youssef Chanine's Egyptian film is a complex and talky piece where an Egyptian filmmaker meets with the ghost of a Marine killed in Lebanon and a meaningful dialogue results. It's well-intentioned but gets rather weird, with even NY cops speaking Egyptian, and the filmmaker having no stated attitude toward the American soldier (played by an Egyptian as well) having sex with an Arab girl. It finally boils down to the bald statement that Americans think they're the only real people in the world and the rest of humanity is just taking up space. I don't agree. I'd say only most Americans.

Somewhat related to one another are Amos Gitai's Israeli piece and Danis Tanovic's Slavic film, both of which show local concerns overshadowed by 9-11. A street bombing in Tel Aviv is pre-empted by the NYC news, as is a local Balkan demonstration by refugees who want to return to their homes after years of exile. The Gitai film, a one-take mastershot that restages a suicide bombing, basically says that the NYC attack is something that Israelis deal with every day, but oddly hinges itself on the disappointment of a local newswoman that 'her' story will be ignored. Tanovic's film shows the results of civil war in the form of displaced people, a maimed man in a wheelchair, and an overall feeling of depression.

The weirdest film by far is Shohei Imamura's poetic fantasy about a traumatized WW2 soldier who believes himself to be a snake, and crawls around biting people and eating rats, whole. It's very well done but deals in an abstraction that's likely to zoom over the heads of any audience without further explanation.

Claude Lelouch tells an interesting little suspense-love story between a deaf tourist guide in NYC (scheduled to take his deaf charges to the World Trade Center you-know-when) and his deaf-mute girlfriend. The actors are engaging, it's all done in sign language and surprisingly uses the disaster well.

Very interesting is Samira Makhmalbaf's piece from Iran, where a schoolteacher tells her tiny pupils to stop making clay bricks as shelters against Atom Bombs from America (the expected retaliation for 9-11) and tries to get them to understand what happened and why Americans need their sympathy. She's met with a kid response that mirrors what an impoverished 3rd World would be expected to think, a combination of ignorance and reliance on God's will. She hasn't even a picture of the attack to show them, so instead has them stand below the tall chimney of their brick kiln, to give them an idea of the much larger towers that came down on the other side of the world. The kids stand there obediently, but the communication is lacking. NYC might as well be on another planet.

Popular Indian director Mira Nair has the compilation's most successful dramatic segment, about a Moslem New Yorker who disappears on 9-11 and how the FBI harasses his family and his devout mother in the weeks that follow. The whole family is shunned by their former friends when the media brand him as a terrorist. It eventually turns out that he's completely the opposite, but the vindication is overshadowed by the acknowledgement that the authorities have no problem condemning suspects on unsubstantiated alarms. Despite what it claims, America is profoundly racist.

The best is Ken Loach's English segment, which turns out to be about a Chilean exile writing an impassioned letter, illustrated by documentary footage from the early 70s. He marvels at Americans demanding sympathy and recognition for their 3,000 dead in NYC on September 11, when there was a September 11 thirty years before in Santiago where the American CIA and Henry Kissinger overthrew and assassinated the elected leader of the country and proceeded to turn right-wing death squads loose to murder 30,000 Chilean leftists who thought they could determine their country's future without outside interference. The message is delivered with staggering force, and the exile ends his letter with the admonition that his country will weep for our dead, if we'll weep for his.

So as you can see, this show isn't going to see many viewings beyond open-minded film fans and the politically progressive. I can see it being rented by mistake by conservatives ... perhaps. I grew up with Latin American outrage on the 1970s University campus - La Hora de los Hornos - so there's no point in hiding my point of view. But I still think the rest of the world's opinions are desperately needed in this time of outrageous propagandizing. Recommended is the BBC World News - it's a reasonably conservative English spin on what's happening in the world, but it has depth. Even if one has to read between the lines a bit, it is honest about this administration's idea of 'Freedom on the March.'

This isn't going to be a very good DVD review as the disc sent was an Academy-style screener (with "property of" chyron coming and going) clearly meant as a theatrical review copy. Therefore it's pointless to talk about the disc's quality as I haven't seen a commercial release version. It was letterboxed but not enhanced and the picture wasn't optimal but the real release might look much better. This is one of the main reasons why in most cases I don't like to review from check discs. In the past I've reported features and specs that were different than what consumers can buy.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, September 11 rates:
Movie: Good
Video: ?
Sound: ?
Supplements: none
Packaging: ?
Reviewed: November 6, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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