One Moment in Time

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Review of '11.09.01', various directors

'11.09.01' is a movie I expected to like. After all, it is an interesting idea. Eleven directors from around the world were given a budget of $400,000 and asked to make a short film (each a symbolic 11 minutes 9 seconds and one frame long) about 11 September.

It's also a film that our enemies actively hate. It has been mercilessly attacked in the right wing press of the world, usually for being 'anti-American propaganda'. The film has been effectively banned in the US. On the other hand Indian director Mira Nair has acclaimed the movie a 'rebirth of cinema's conscience'. If only.

Sadly there are problems in almost all aspects of the movie. The whole conceit of the 11 directors and symbolic time frame is clunky. Some of the segments seem squashed, especially Mira Nair's film, while others are little more than throwaway ideas (some of which would have been better thrown away). There are also problems with the perverse choices of directors. Given that this is a French project you have to question why a mediocre director like Claude Lelouch got the call to make his mawkish little love story. Were Tavernier or Guediguian (or even Godard) on holiday? Or are they just too politically fiery for a project that hedges far too many of its bets?

That failure of nerve is most obvious in the 'Israel' part of the film. By any standards this is bereft of any artistic imagination (think GNVQ student with a camcorder). Moreover, it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to say about 11 September beyond a mendacious special pleading for the Zionist military machine. Why is this visual pollution in the movie? The answer seems all too obvious to me. It is there to 'balance' out the pro-Arab 'Egypt' segment.

The fact is that anyone trying to make a movie about 11 September has to confront two unavoidable challenges--one artistic, the other political.

Firstly there is the problem of artistic expression. On the fatal day the images from New York were simply overwhelming, but every thinking person in the world is by now surely turned off by the cult of 11 September. So the first critical question is: do these films find the visual daring to show or tell anything that is fresh, or even just different, about the most media-hyped event in history?

The answer is sadly more no than yes. Some of the movies have real vivacity (like those from India, Iran and Burkina Faso) but too many of the others ('Egypt', 'Bosnia' and 'France' especially) are frankly artless, even banal. The exceptions are the pieces by Sean Penn and by the veteran Japanese director Imamura, both of which are self consciously 'arty'. Personally I liked these, but I can understand why others found them pretentious.

The bigger challenge facing a film like this is political. Bush and his junta have hijacked 11 September and emptied it of its personal tragedy. 9/11 has been turned into a quasi-religious myth, which they use to bludgeon dissent to their holy war. It is simply not enough to mourn the dead, because the dead have been posthumously enlisted in Bush's crusade for oil. So the second critical question is: do these films break out of that sanctimonious orthodoxy to set 11 September in a more critical political understanding?

Again the answer is mixed. Some are critical of Bush's imperialism, especially 'Egypt'. The sections from Burkina Faso and Iran wryly remind us that 11 September had a very different meaning at the edges of the global economy. But overall the mood is more sorrow than anger.

There is, however, one quite brilliant exception to all of the above. Ken Loach's 11 minutes won the Critics' Prize for Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival and never was an award more richly deserved. Loach and his usual collaborators pull off the synthesis of artistry and political acumen that the other directors fumble. Artistically the film is a master class, while politically it has a clarity and a rage which the others simply do not approach. Loach reminds the world of a different 9/11--11 September 1973, when CIA-sponsored terrorists overthrew the elected Allende government of Chile, killing several times as many people as died in the Twin Towers. It is a simple but devastating piece of bravura film-making that cuts directly through all the sanctimonious 9/11 moral blackmail.

Unfortunately, Loach's 11 minutes aside, too many of these short films miss their target. I tried very hard to like this movie more, but I just didn't. I would file it as an interesting and honourable failure, but a failure nonetheless.