October 2, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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Sometimes the only way to deal with a catastrophe is to tell stories about it. To repeat the events over and over, to our selves, to others, until we’ve said the words enough that they make sense — or until we can convince ourselves that they do. That is how eleven directors from eleven countries attempted to comprehend what we’ve euphemistically termed “the events of September 11th” in an internationally produced film called 9’11″01. Each director was given eleven minutes to present to us a single facet of the tragedy. It’s a daunting task. Eleven minutes is too short a time, or perhaps too long a time, to try and make any sense of that day. And of course no one experience can speak for them all. That may be the point, that as subjective individuals, limited to our own paltry point of view, none of us will ever know the total scope of any event.

The first film, by Samira Makhmalbaf of Iran, makes this point indelibly by depicting a teacher of Afghan refugees in Iran trying to explain to her class what has happened, and why they should care, when one of their father’s has just drowned in a well. The teacher, unable to control the class, observes a moment of silence by herself and then drags them outside to stand at the foot of a tall, smoke belching chimney, their only possible reference point to a skyscraper. Makhmalbaf’s film lays out two themes which every other segment follows They are all, in some way, about empathy or its failure and each one depicts a character imparting the story to others: just as the directors tell their stories to us, and just as we told the story to each other, and have been for two years.

Claude Lelouch’s film draws immense tension out of the simple story of two people who have fallen out of love. The couple lives a few blocks away from Wall Street. The woman, who is deaf, is a photographer, and the man, who is not, is a tour guide. He goes to work, she stays behind to write a letter telling him she is leaving. The TV is on in the background, playing the collapse on loop, and the dog is barking, but she notices nothing at all until the room shakes. And then the door opens, and he is home, covered in dust. She has no idea what has happened, and he cannot speak, but she puts her arms around him, and we find unbearable comfort in their embrace.

The great Danis Tanovic’s (No Man’s Land) segment depicts a similar, graceful kind of mute humanity. In a small refugee community somewhere that is not Bosnia (it is astounding how many of the segments are about people who have lost their homes) a young woman prepares to attend the monthly demonstration in the square. On the way, she and her fellow protesters listen to the radio. At first, they decide to leave, but then, almost without a word, that days march becomes “for us and for them.”

Most of the films are like that, examining events from a remove, as they affected most of the world: people sympathized and then went about their lives. Alejandro I