- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

In Sean Penn’s segment of “11‘09”01,” a French anthology of 11 short films related to the September 11 attacks, the collapse of the Twin Towers, which killed 2,800 people, is portrayed as letting light shine into the world and producing self-knowledge.
  That’s the “American” perspective in this French-produced compilation film.
  Thus “11‘09”01” was first announced at the Cannes Film Festival last May, with French producer Jacques Perrin bringing together 11 prizewinning directors from 11 countries for the project. The only requirements for inclusion were a relationship to what the final film evasively calls in its introduction “the tragic events that occurred in New York City” and the gimmicky fixed length of 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame, which gives the film its title.
   The film will play twice at Filmfest DC Friday at 9 p.m. and May 3 at 6:30 p.m. Both screenings are at the Avalon Theater, 5612 Connecticut Ave. It had its North American premiere on Sept. 11, 2002, at the Toronto Film Festival and has been released commercially in most countries around the world except the United States.
  Other short films in the anthology include an 11-minute screed on Chile by a British leftist who has said that “the U.S. have been the terrorists of the last half-century” and an Egyptian short from a filmmaker who defends deliberate attacks on civilians and says Israel secretly controls U.S. foreign policy.
  No American distributor has been secured, and the film’s prospects for any U.S. distribution outside festivals have been widely noted as dim, since Variety called parts of the film “stridently anti-American” after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in August 2002.
  Americans aren’t missing much, except the chance to boycott or picket the film over several of the subjects.
  In fairness, several of the other shorts are quite good, including the ones from Iran, Israel and Mexico, while others are merely innocuous. But overall, the film is another in a long list of French insults to the United States ranking alongside post-structuralism, the U.N. Security Council and Parisian waiters.
  In typical French fashion, the two “Anglo-Americaine” auteurs in this supposed cross-section of world voices are both from the “blame America first” school of thought.
  What is offensive about Mr. Penn’s film is its ending. For most of its length, Ernest Borgnine plays a widower padding around alone in his dimly lit apartment, doing “Ugly American” things like watching Jerry Springer and eating cake frosting right out of the can. He fetishizes his dead wife’s clothes, mumbles to himself a lot, and naps through TV images of the burning Twin Towers. So far, so Method.
  But at the end, inexplicably, a light shines into the apartment through the window. A dead flower blooms and Mr. Borgnine tears up, saying to his wife’s clothes that “you should have seen this” his first explicit acknowledgement that she is dead. Then the camera leaves the apartment to look at the building from the outside, and we see from the shadow pattern that what had caused the light to enter was the collapse of one of the Twin Towers, no longer casting a shadow. Yes, the destruction of the World Trade Center is portrayed as a liberating, revitalizing ray of sunshine.
  Much blunter are the shorts by Egyptian director Youssef Chahine and British director Ken Loach, who has made several fine movies portraying British working-class characters, including “Sweet Sixteen” (also playing at Filmfest DC).
  The premise of Mr. Loach’s film is that a Chilean is writing a letter to Americans about September 11, only he recalls that this was also the date of the U.S.-backed 1973 military coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. More than 90 percent of the film’s running time is a straight didactic “lesson” on modern Chilean history, with the letter being read in voice-over to newsreel footage of the coup.
  Even granting Mr. Loach his tendentious readings of history, what is the Pinochet coup’s relevance to “the tragic events that occurred in New York City,” unless it be that America had it coming?
  The closing line, the only possible attempt at an answer, is “as we remember you, I hope you will remember us.” But if the Chilean’s letter is supposed to represent how “we [Chileans] remember you [Americans],” his idea of remembering “you” is to tell “you” all about himself (“we”). Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once approvingly cited someone disparaging New York’s September 11 memorializations as “narcissism about mourning.” If that’s ever a morally valid critique to make, surely it applies to Mr. Loach’s narrator exploiting still-fresh American grief as a pretext to revisit a historical Chilean grief.
  In Mr. Chahine’s piece, a director, clearly a stand-in for himself, is visited on a beach by the ghost of a Marine killed in a Beirut bombing and later by a Palestinian suicide bomber. Mr. Chahine’s film is undigested and plays like lumpy Al Jazeera outtakes, with lines such as “Bin Laden and his followers were trained by Americans” and “the worst violence is the [Israeli] occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza.
  But it goes beyond silliness into ugliness when one character, with no effort or implication of authorial distance or rebuttal, says U.S. foreign policy is a slave to Israeli machinations: “That fool Bush lets them [the Israelis] decide who the terrorists are.” Again, the anti-Semitic trope of the sneaky Jew secretly controlling others and the already-tired “Bush is stupid” line.
  In the discussion with the suicide bomber, Mr. Chahine’s surrogate believes that “American citizens are responsible for their government because of America’s democracy.” American and Israeli “civilians” actually constitute their government and perpetuate its unjust policies, including “the worst violence” and “training bin Laden.” Not only is this an implicit argument for dictatorship, but it takes little effort to see what this means for the concept of “civilians.” Playing this vile piece of trash a few miles from where 188 people were killed is no other word will suffice sick.
  There is a fourth grating piece by India’s Mira Nair. A warning against the great danger of anti-Muslim pogroms (though not in a country where they actually happen), it recounts the true story of a Pakistani woman in New York whose medical-student son disappeared on September 11. Federal agents questioned her, and the son was named a terror suspect. Six months later, his body was found in the rubble, where, it was learned, he had gone to help.
  Mrs. Nair’s piece is so self-congratulatory that it almost seems unfair to point out the obvious: the dead Muslim’s mother was never harmed or punished, and her son was eventually vindicated. We get the line “they’ve rounded up everyone who looks Muslim,” but it comes from someone who looks Muslim but who “they” somehow had not “rounded up.”
  Further, the film’s inter-segments and Web site (which display the filmmakers’ country more prominently than the filmmakers) quite specifically situate the short films as representing their countries. But less than six months after the September 11 attacks, the deadly Muslim torching of a train filled with Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat led to retaliation and counter-retaliation until about 2,000 were killed and 100,000 left homeless.
  Frankly, no American should have to listen to sermons about our ethnic and religious scapegoating from someone purporting to represent a nation perennially torn by bloody ethnic and religious strife. There’s a gall and presumption that resembles a white person representing South Africa in the 1980s presuming to lecture on racial equality.

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