Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Ken Loach, Mira Nair, Amos Gitai, Youssef Chahine, Danis Tanovic, Samira Makhmalbaf, Claude Lelouch, Shohei Imamura, Sean Penn, Idrissa Ouedraogo. (2003, NR, 128 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 17, 2003
It’s possible this movie might have greater resonance if it were released in the States under its original title as 11'09''01, since that European pattern of date notation also explains a great deal about this movie’s construction. Commissioned by the French producer Alain Brigand as a response to the terrorist attacks, September 11 assembles the work of 11 filmmakers from 11 countries who were each instructed to make an episode, the only stipulation being that each episode run exactly 11 minutes, nine seconds, and one frame – or 11-09-01. It’s as good a structure as any for an omnibus film, I suppose, but the result is unsurprisingly uneven. Also, the two-year delay in releasing the film in the U.S. causes the film to lose some of its urgency and emotional punch. Still, some of these short films are wonderful little nuggets that are truly powerful. The film by Mexico’s Iñárritu may be the most disturbing of the lot, effectively using the disconnect between sight and sound as it shows mostly a black screen for the entire 11 minutes, punctuated only by the sounds of the day. Lelouch also uses that separation of sight and sound in his story of a deaf Parisian woman in New York who breaks up with her boyfriend moments before the Towers fall. The most poetic of the lot belongs to Imamura from Japan, whose story of a Japanese soldier returning home from his country’s brutal war in China is the only film that truly condemns the terrorists outright. The soldier, now convinced he is a snake, literally slithers through the story and concludes, "There is no such thing as holy war." The segment by Mira Nair from India is devoted the roundup and "disappearance" of Arab-Americans in the wake of 9/11 and tells a very human and emotionally disturbing story. The film’s only humorous segment comes from Burkina Faso’s Ouedraogo, who tells a story about little boys who think they’re chasing Osama bin Laden down the alleyways of their neighborhood. Several directors approach 9/11 from perspectives of their own nationalities, which has mixed results. Ken Loach’s meditation on the meaning of 9/11 in Chile reminds us that the CIA-directed coup Allende’s Socialist government occurred on Sept. 11, 1973. Gitai shows us the perspective of an Israeli TV journalist reporting on that country’s latest bombing only to get bumped off the air by the Twin Towers falling. The segment’s focus is too much on the selfishness on the journalist to have universal appeal. Tanovic’s segment focuses on the widows of the Bosnian conflicts; it’s heart-breaking but a bit off-topic. Chahine’s segment from Egypt is full of moral pronouncements as the ghost of an American Marine hovers in the background. This one will be the hardest for most Americans to accept, but the segment’s problems reside primarily in its cumbersome attempts to provoke without having thought through its means of doing so. Makhmalbaf presents a sweet but inconsequential episode of an Iranian teacher trying to explain to her young students what happened, although they can’t even understand the concept of a tall building. Sean Penn provides the oddest movie of the bunch. In it, a bloated Ernest Borgnine is a widower who wanders around his apartment with his wife as though she were still there, talking and dancing with her. But then the fall of the Towers allows light to shine into his apartment, bringing happiness to this man for the first time since his wife died. This implication that every tragedy has a silver lining may be a little harsh for a film of this nature. But when has Penn ever gone the obvious route? As a whole, September 11 never reaches any conclusions or ready insights. But as a collection of moments, the film often soars.