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Grave Topic: Egyptian director Youssef Chahine (right) is one of 11 directors who look at Sept. 11 in an anthology of political shorts.

Tragedy Times 11

The anthology film 'September 11' roils audiences with global perspectives on the Twin Towers attacks

By Richard von Busack

THERE ARE Americans who require the world to love them for their nationality alone. As such, some found themselves steamed by the controversial anthology film September 11, which met protests at the Toronto and Cannes film festivals. Finally, we get our own look at these 11 films by 11 directors, each 11 minutes long.

Seeing it a year later, as the anniversary approaches, the controversy seems overblown. A political rebuke by Ken Loach--doesn't he live to rebuke?--is somehow less dismaying than Sean Penn's short about a widower's puttering life in an apartment. Penn's film is like a pork chop (star Ernest Borgnine's juicy, old-school emoting) ladled with chocolate sauce (a last-minute poignant burst of magical realism).

Actually, the real sticking point seems to be by Egypt's Youssef Chahine, who tells of being visited by the ghost of a U.S. Marine killed at Beirut. He schools the phantom about all the foreigners Americans have killed. Wait, aren't ghosts supposed to lecture us? The Marine (an Egyptian actor with a blond dye job) is contrasted with a similarly martyred intifada soldier, who leaves for a firefight without the dinner his mother made: "Come back, you forgot your schwarma," she pantomimes sadly. Chahine plays himself: a prosperous, middle-aged director with a home on the Mediterranean coast.

Chahine is hardly a cruel terrorist; his film ends respectfully at Arlington Cemetery (a set, with palm trees on it). If anything, Chahine is more like a radical-chic fancier. His schlocko method makes his two-wrongs-perhaps-make-a-right politics easier to dismiss.

Loach takes a more implicit approach of telling us that Sept. 11 was a case of the chickens coming home to roost. He films the reminiscence of Chilean political exile Vladimir Vega on the 30th anniversary of the 9/11/1973 assassination of President Salvador Allende. That atrocity, and the subsequent terror inflicted by United States-backed fascists in Chile, should never be forgotten or forgiven. Still, in the context of this memorial, Loach's film is not just a discursion but an example of the political rigidness that's leaching the life out of his newer movies.

This selection spotlights the usual advantage of a short-film assortment--it's so hard to go wrong in an 11-minute slot. There is, of course, the usual disadvantage: the moods clash. One short masterpiece is chased by an anticlimax.

The highlights include Shohei Imamura's antiwar fable; Samira Makhmalbaf stressing the difficulty of explaining the World Trade Center attacks to children in a part of Iran where they build with mud brick; and Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) telling a compact version of a shameful true story about the U.S. government's anti-Muslim hysteria.

Idrissa Ouedraogo, from Burkina Faso, is the lone director to bring some levity to the subject. A 12-year-old African boy is hard up for money to start school. He learns from the newspapers about the multimillion-dollar bounty on Osama bin Laden's head. To his shock, he sees the man himself wandering through the stalls at the market. Possibly, this bin Laden is just a merchant with a passing resemblance to the evil mastermind. The boy and his buddies track "bin Laden," already dividing up the money between themselves.

Ouedraogo humbly makes a point: a better use of the reward would be to help the afflicted poor. This may be the first time bin Laden has been played in a film, and the funniest part of September 11 is watching how the actor picked up on the Al Qaeda leader's style--his look of flatulent sweetness, like a kid's religious TV-show host.

Even better is the episode by Alejandro González Iñárritu, which uses negative space to create a memorial to the dead of Sept. 11. We're given a dark screen, with a sound mix of frenzied cell phone calls, goodbye messages and muttering voices--prayers from the Chamulas Indians of Chiapas for the souls of those who died.

All Iñárritu shows us are the jumpers: snippets, a few seconds long, of solo figures flying downward against the vertical stripes of the Towers. The unbearable sight is followed by blackout, a symbolic closing of the camera's eye. The essence of modern art is figuring a way to gnaw around the edge, to find a place where witnesses can close the gap between a subject and themselves. And yet Iñárritu proves the power of striking at the heart of the matter.

Iñárritu, who directed Amores Perros, writes in the press notes about 9/11: "It has more to do with Cain and Abel than Bush and Osama. ... If you review the terminology of Bush's speeches and Osama's message, it is scary, because beyond reasonable fact, they were talking about good, evil and God, all of which are very vulnerable and subjective matters."

That's why he ends his film with an almost inscrutable sentence in English and Arabic: "Does God's light guide us or blind us?"

September 11 (Unrated; 134 min.), plays opens Sept. 12 at selected theaters.

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From the September 4-10, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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