NR, 134 min.
Opening Friday at the Belcourt Theatre
I don’t know what I was expecting from 11’09”01September 11, a collection of 11 short films responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but I didn’t get it. To be fair, I may have wanted things no single work of art can completely provideclosure, exorcism, an understanding of one’s place in a hostile and fragmented world. But what I wanted most was an affirmation that art still matters in a world racked by loss and unfathomable inhumanity. Instead, in its gimmicky presentation and its appointment of celebrity directors as global spokesmen, this omnibus seemsto borrow a cattily appropriate phrase from John Watersso Sept. 10.
From the outset, the form trumps the content. The premise itself sounds alarmingly high-concept: Give 11 filmmakers from 11 countries exactly 11 minutes, nine seconds plus one frame of film to address the attacks. Despite a certain symmetry, not to mention fairness, it’s a restriction better suited to a competition than to serious reflection.
Still, the first film, by the young Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf, accepts the challenge with humility and even gentle humor. An Afghan teacher tries to explain the attacks to her preteen students, who think she’s referring to an accidental drowning that just happened. There as here, local tragedies tend to overshadow international ones. When she tries to get them to empathize with the New York victims, the kids argue whether God played any part in the plane crashes. Ironically, this classroom exercise is one of the few segments that isn’t preachy or pedantic. It’s also one of the few that expresses even a scrap of sympathy.
The films that follow are so wrongheaded that they sour the entire project. France’s Claude Lelouch, best known as a purveyor of shampoo-commercial sap, uses the occasion to equate the end of a relationship to the end of the world. Now, there’s perspective. But for sheer insensitivity and self-importance, the booby prize goes to Egypt’s Youssef Chahine, who imagines himself (played by an actor) lecturing a suicide bomber’s American victim on why he got blown up, then chatting up the bomber’s Palestinian family about Israel’s transgressions.
It’s not Chahine’s politics I object tothe whole point of these films is to provide multiple perspectivesso much as his presumption. Every frame of his jackass segment rings with the arrogance and entitlement he sees in America, from making himself the subject (addressed onscreen as “Maestro”) to staging infantile sight gags with the material. More powerful, though scarcely less offensive, is Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s juxtaposition of a dense, discordant soundtrack of cries, chants and answering-machine messages with a black screenwhich is interrupted, terrifyingly, by blips of falling bodies. The director deserves credit for addressing the calamity directly, but the flickers of real footage create a distasteful peekaboo effect, like a Fox TV trailer for tragedy.
Elsewhere, either noble intentions are served at the expense of craftas in Mira Nair’s pertinent but wooden study of a New Yorker whose Muslim son is suspected of terrorismor the occasion becomes an excuse for an aesthetic stunt, like Amos Gitai’s showy one-take prowl through a Tel Aviv bombing site. The artists clearly feel pressure to respond in some meaningful way, but it’s too soon for commemorative art. The most piercing post-9/11 work so far has been about the unfamiliarity of this bleeding new landscapeBruce Springsteen’s album The Rising and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour are affecting precisely because they often seem so lost. Whenever the directors here strain for grand statements, as in Sean Penn’s awkward fable about a widower’s dying plant, they turn real suffering into a cloudy abstraction.
For that reason, the segment most reviewers have trashed, from British firebrand Ken Loach, is the one that hits hardest. From his home in England, a Chilean exile writes an open letter to the families and victims in America. Like them, he is a victim of Sept. 11not the 2001 terrorist attacks, but the 1973 CIA-backed overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende that led to years of terror and oppression. “On Sept. 11, we will remember you,” he writes. “I hope you will remember us.” Yet his tone is mournful, not accusatory. In this searing vignette, 11’09”01 commemorates our induction into a worldwide brotherhood of sorrow.
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