After absorbing the blow from 9/11, artists around the world got out their tool kits and went to work. But how do you put together a response to a cataclysmic event of such magnitude? The destruction of the World Trade Center was the most recorded breaking-news story of all time, professionals and amateurs pointing their cameras toward the fire and smoke and rubble. Then print journalists began sifting through the debris, looking for signs of life after death. It may have been the pencil brigade's finest hour. "Portraits of Grief," The New York Times' heroic effort to give every victim a name and a face, was a months-long memorial service, taking us through a daily gamut of emotions in 250 words or less. If you're an artist, how do you top that?
Eleven answers to that question come to us courtesy of September 11, a compilation film organized by French producer Alain Brigand. Often moving, sometimes puzzling but always thought provoking, September 11 is less a memorial service than a wake-up call. And what we Americans need to wake up to, most of the participating directors would argue, is the fact that there's a whole wide world out there, a world where the destruction of the World Trade Center wasn't such a cataclysmic event after all. And even if it was, it needs to be placed alongside all the other cataclysmic events of recent years, everything from the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the deaths of two men in an Afghan refugee camp.
The latter is all that an Afghani schoolteacher can get her kindergarten-age students to come up with when she quizzes them on 9/11. A half-world away, the Twin Towers have collapsed, and although the news has sent the camp into a frenzy of activity, building mud-brick bomb shelters against the expected nuclear attack by the U.S., the children simply can't take it in. Their horizons end at a nearby well, scene of a recent tragedy. Directed by Samira Makhmalbaf, one of Iran's most promising young directors, this sharp-eyed glance at a part of the world that's suddenly important to us brings home just how difficult it can be to think globally, act locally. When it comes to sorting through the geopolitical complexity of 9/11, we're all kindergartners.
West African director Idrissa Ouedraogo also uses children to show us what happens to 9/11 when it's filtered to the more remote corners of the globe. "The world's gone crazy," a man tells his young son when the news comes in over the radio. But everything quickly returns to normal. Then the kid spots Osama bin Laden walking the streets of Onaga. At least it looks like Bin Laden ' tall, bearded, Muslim. And because the $25 million reward would go a long ways toward paying off his mother's medical bills, the boy and his friends set a trap for the international terrorist, who, real McCoy or not, slips easily through their fingers. Largely removed from the daily lives of his countrymen, Ouedraogo is telling us, 9/11 works best as a boy's adventure story.
But you don't have to be thousands of miles away from Ground Zero to feel removed from what's going on. Sean Penn, the lone American director, has set his film in New York City, where a poor old widower (Ernest Borgnine) goes right on missing ' and talking out loud to ' his deceased wife as the twin-tower shadows on the outside wall of his apartment crumble to the ground. The message: Some things are just too painful to face head-on. Similarly, France's Claude Lelouch sets his film in a Manhattan loft, where a deaf woman types a Dear John letter to her tour-guide boyfriend while the television, hidden from her, suggests a reason for staying together, at least for a while. The message: Some things are just too painful to face alone.
To some, Penn and Lelouch themselves may seem too removed from 9/11 ' too personal, not political enough. Compare their films to the third film set in New York, this one directed by India's Mira Nair. Based on the true story of a Pakistani-American man who was suspected of being a terrorist right up to the moment when he was declared a hero (for rushing to the Trade Center to help out, only to be buried in the rubble), this mini-docudrama captures the whose-side-are-you-on atmosphere that's still with us today. So does Egyptian director Youssef Chahine's film, in which a director much like Chahine talks to the ghosts of a Palestinian suicide bomber and an American soldier killed in the 1983 barracks bombing in Beirut. Neither ghost makes a compelling case.
Several of the films try to put 9/11 in a geopolitical context. In one long tracking shot, Israel's Amos Gitai depicts the aftermath of a car bombing in Tel Aviv. Amidst the chaos, a TV newswoman's on-the-scene report gets bumped by the news from New York. Likewise, Bosnia's Danis Tanovic lets us know that in Srebenica, a town where thousands of Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Serbs, the 11th of every month is reserved for demonstrations by their wives and mothers. Finally, England's Ken Loach takes us to Argentina, where a survivor of the Pinochet regime, while feeling our pain, reminds us of the pain that the U.S. military caused on Sept. 11, 1973, helping topple the socialist government of Salvador Allende.
If Loach's film argues a specific case, Japan's Shohei Imamura tries to capture the universal horror of war, the way it strips us of our humanity. Traumatized by what he's seen and done, a veteran of World War II returns to his village, only not as a man but as a snake. Hissing at his family, he slithers across the floor, biting his mother's hand when she tries to feed him, then swallowing an entire rat, nose to tail. Finally, he swims off into the great unknown, presumably never to return. One might wonder what this children's fable has to do with 9/11, except in the most general sense. Which may be why Imamura felt compelled to attach a final thought, directed to those who would bare their fangs: "There is no such thing as a holy war."
Of all the films, the one that will stay with us the longest is the one that takes us back to the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu goes the experimental route, keeping the screen blank except for blink-and-you-miss-it clips of people jumping from the towers' top floors. Meanwhile, the audio track is a collage of voices, including an actual phone message from a woman who's mere minutes from her death. "I'm having a little problem on the plane," she says. "I love you. Bye, honey." It doesn't seem to have occurred to Inarritu that he might be exploiting both our morbid curiosity and our grief. Regardless, his film is both heartbreaking and nerve-wracking, not unlike the attacks themselves.
Although they vary widely in approach, the films share one characteristic: They're all 11 minutes, 9 seconds and 1 frame long, 11'09"01 being the European notation for 9/11/01. Yes, it's gimmicky, but at least it's kept the directors from doing what directors so often do: let the cameras keep rolling until they run out of film. As a rule, artists like to share all their thoughts and feelings. But when you have something like 9/11, which means so many things to so many people, it's better to keep it short.