In the months following 9/11, eleven filmmakers from around the world were asked to make a short film on the subject. Their limits were a $400,000 budget and a time constraint of exactly eleven minutes, nine seconds, and one frame. The result is 11’09″01 (called September 11 in America, where, unlike in many other countries, it never really got a proper release), an anthology of disparate takes on the event that scarred a country and scared the rest of the world. We’ll take them individually, in order of appearance.
Samira Makhmalbaf (Iran): We begin with a bucket of water being hauled laboriously from the bottom of a deep and drying well. The water is to be used to make mud for bricks, which will be used to build a shelter in an Iranian village of Afghani refugees. Why a shelter? Because the adults in the village have heard about what happened in New York, and they fully expect a nuclear reprisal from a maddened and not particularly picky America. The children in the village help with the bricks, completely unaware of the event; they’re more interested in an event closer to home, in which two men are said to have fallen down a well and died. The children’s teacher (Maryam Karimi) assembles them for class, and tries to explain to them what has happened. Their innocent minds can’t really grasp it. Eventually the teacher has to take the kids outside and show them a tall chimney so they can get some sense of what a “tower” even is. Samira Makhmalbaf’s film is absorbing and has something to say to Americans who grew up being hyped about the nuclear threat from Russia — much as children in other nations are now taught about the nuclear threat from us.
Claude Lelouch (France): A deaf-mute photographer (Emmanuelle Laborit) lives in New York with her lover (Jérôme Horry), a sign-language translator who takes deaf people on tours through various city landmarks, including the World Trade Center. One morning they have a little spat and he leaves for work. The woman agonizes over her laptop, writing a letter to him about the future of their relationship while the planes slam into the World Trade Center on TV in the next room — unheard, of course, by her. Claude Lelouch keeps us inside the woman’s near-soundless perception for almost the entire film, adding an ominous tone to what could’ve been a rather twee story about a couple in crisis during a much larger crisis.
Youssef Chahine (Egypt): A film director is scheduled to discuss his new film at a press conference on September 12. After the event, he can’t discuss something so trivial, and wanders off to encounter the ghosts of a U.S. Marine killed in Beirut and a Palestinian suicide bomber. There’s a bit of rhetoric about how America has killed many more innocents than were killed on 9/11, and how civilians in America and Israel are considered fair game for terrorist attacks because they’re democracies and therefore they voted for the people who make the policies that tear the Middle East apart. In the end, though, the segment is concerned with protecting human life everywhere from any political violence. If that political violence includes our own, well, look in a mirror and pick up a newspaper.
Danis Tanovic (Bosnia-Herzegovina): The first of several pieces in the film to remind American viewers that tragedy didn’t begin on September 11, Danis Tanovic’s segment follows a woman who organizes other female townspeople on the eleventh of each month to protest the war that took their men away. When news arrives of the events in New York, many of the women consider cancelling the protest, but the protagonist insists that not even this should stop their mission, and in fact, it’s more important now than ever to continue to speak against war. Preachy but well-handled.
Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina-Faso): This one comes the closest to entertainment of the eleven shorts, as five West African boys think they’ve spotted Osama bin Laden in town and hope to capture him for the $25 million reward. Think of how much help for the poor and sick that money could buy! Yes, we do think of it, and it seems obscene to throw around that much money — not to mention the billions we’ve ended up spending in Iraq — that could help the needy instead, here and abroad. Idrissa Ouedraogo keeps it all relatively light, though not offensively so.
Ken Loach (United Kingdom): Vladimir Vega tells the story of Chile’s own Tuesday, September 11 — the day in 1973 when the democratically elected President Allende was killed and the vicious dictator Pinochet took over, with help from the United States of America. Ken Loach lets Vega speak persuasively and sadly for himself, ending with the hope that Americans will remember Chile’s 9/11 as vividly as Chile, and everyone else, is expected to remember America’s 9/11.
Alejandro González Iñárritu (Mexico): The director of Amores Perros and 21 Grams weighs in with a scarifying impressionistic piece that unfolds almost entirely without imagery, aside from strobing video of people jumping out of the burning Twin Towers. Our ears are assaulted by various sounds of that day — terrified cell-phone conversation, explosions, screams, the thudding of bodies hitting the street, and finally the towers collapsing. Iñárritu strips the experience down to what horrified him the most — the detail of people crazed with fear and presented with the awful choice of burning to death or jumping to their deaths. A haunting piece making use of footage that, perhaps understandably, hasn’t been seen much on the networks since that day.
Amos Gitaï (Israel): This one seems the most expendable. It follows, in one unbroken take, the frustrations of an Israeli TV news reporter trying to cover the aftermath of a terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv, and finding herself upstaged by the events of 9/11. Is this a critique of callous reporters, or an acknowledgment that in many terrorism-torn areas of the world 9/11 was seen as just another big-boom story? Whichever the case, it seems to go on forever with no clear point of view or, indeed, any point in general.
Mira Nair (India): The director of Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair tells the true, if stylistically unremarkable, story of a Moslem woman whose son was wrongly assumed to be a terrorist connected with 9/11. The twist ending gives this piece the shape of a fable, which would seem sappy if it weren’t true. Still, Nair does a good job of demonstrating the reflexive fear and xenophobia many Americans exhibited towards anyone who even looked Arabic in the days following 9/11.
Sean Penn (USA): One of the more memorable yet problematic segments stars Ernest Borgnine as a widower who still talks to his dear departed wife. He’s upset because there isn’t enough light coming through the window to sustain the flowers she loved. Then the first tower comes down, and the flowers perk up again. It’s hard to know what Sean Penn is saying with this piece — he doesn’t seem the type, directorially, to burp something so banal as “Look at the silver lining.” In any event, it benefits from an impassioned performance by Borgnine, who hadn’t enjoyed a role this lovingly actor-centered in years.
Shohei Imamura (Japan): The last and most intriguing segment isn’t really connected to 9/11 in terms of its events, but thematically it’s all too relevant. After World War II, a Japanese soldier deranged by the war believes he has become a snake. He writhes around, darting his tongue out, biting people, and swallowing a rat. We get the point: War can turn men into snakes — or terrorists. Shohei Imamura’s explicitly stated message is “There is no such thing as a holy war.” Food for thought, though probably lost on the thoughtless.
11’09″01 emerges, then, as a sketchbook of the day, much like the several graphic novels in which dozens of comics artists and writers contributed their own takes on the event. Unaccountably buried in this country — shown at only a few festivals and then unceremoniously dumped onto home video — it’s eminently worth seeing, arguing with, and thinking about.