Candid Cameras

Painful lesson: Maryam Karimi in Samira Makhmalbaf's September 11 episode.Photo: Courtesy of Empire Pictures.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the French producer Alain Brigand hired eleven filmmakers from around the world to craft their responses to the event, his only restriction being that each short film run exactly eleven minutes, nine seconds, and one frame. The result, September 11, is an ungainly, intermittently harrowing omnibus filled with moments of piercing sorrow and rage. Artists are generally not at their best when officially reacting to a public tragedy, and yet 9/11 may have been a special case; it was a global cataclysm that at the same time felt shudderingly personal, and perhaps this explains why so many artists rose to the occasion. (It also explains why the tragedy has been so effectively used for political demagoguery.) Even the least of the episodes in September 11 share a desire to pull something meaningful—something sensibly human—out of the chaos.

The directors represented are a mixed bunch, and there are some disappointments. Mira Nair, for example, awkwardly dramatizes a true story of a New York Pakistani family whose missing son was falsely suspected of being a terrorist. On the other hand, Claude Lelouch, known for his slick romanticism, is responsible for one of the more touching segments: A guide for the deaf in New York, following a fight with his deaf girlfriend, leaves her to conduct a tour of the World Trade Center the morning of the attack. He returns covered in ashes. The sequence is played out with intermittent silences, which, in context, is more deafening than any soundtrack could ever be.

Two of the segments—by Egypt’s Youssef Chahine and England’s Ken Loach—are vociferously anti-American, and may have been responsible for the film’s somewhat delayed U.S. distribution. But their outrage is emotionally layered and far from uncomplicated. Loach’s film, in particular, which takes the form of a heartfelt letter by a Chilean exile to the survivors of 9/11, never allows its somewhat Chomskian indictment of American adventurism to overwhelm one’s grief. It expresses what many Americans at the time of 9/11 failed to comprehend: For a lot of people around the world, the attacks were inevitable (although no less shocking for having actually occurred).

Loach’s segment snaps the viewer out of the humanitarian-art haze that occasionally overcomes September 11. (To the producer’s credit, he imposed no ideological restrictions on his filmmakers.) Another, artsier kind of haze detracts from Sean Penn’s segment. It has a magical-realist finale that’s quite moving, but there are too many extreme close-ups of wilted flowers and faucets dripping in slo-mo, and it’s hard to get past the fact that the film features only Ernest Borgnine in his underwear in a dingy apartment—not a pretty sight on all counts. (Unmagical realism.) The four best episodes, however—from Japan’s Shohei Imamura, Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu, Burkina Faso’s Idrissa Quedraogo, and Iran’s 23-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf—are small miracles of poetic compression.

Imamura’s film is about a soldier who returns home so traumatized by World War II that he believes he is a snake, slithering across the floor and gobbling rats; he bites his family if they try to touch him. This is the only one of the eleven entries set in the past, but what it says about how war deforms people’s psyches could not be more current. Iñárritu (who directed the startling Amores Perros) mostly shows us a black screen—it eventually shifts to white, which we are meant to receive as a balm. It’s as if Iñárritu understood that no images of his own could overthrow the ones we hold for ourselves of that day. What he does show us, in flashes, are the shots of bodies falling from the windows of the World Trade Center, the same images that were quickly taken off the air after their initial broadcast. On the soundtrack, we hear a babble of actual recordings of the trapped and panicked. All this may sound exploitative, but it matchlessly brings back the crazy-making clamor of those hours.

A deft fable, Quedraogo’s contribution is about a group of African classmates who accidentally discover that Osama bin Laden is hiding among them. They contrive to capture him for the $25 million reward, filming him with a video camera in the marketplace and at prayer. For these boys, the calamity in America has been reduced to an elaborate game of hide-and-seek.

Samira Makhmalbaf’s episode is also about children, Afghan refugees living on the Afghan-Iranian border, who are even younger and less comprehending. Their teacher, having heard the news of 9/11, herds them together and asks for a minute of silence, but they can’t sit still. They can only relate to death—at least death in the abstract—by transforming it into a kind of nursery rhyme. One little boy proudly announces that “God kills people so he can make new people.” It’s as close as anyone—including the adults—comes to an understanding of horror.

From the time they were invented, movies have implicitly held out the hope that they could unite people in a shared vision—a shared bliss. September 11 attests to a different dream. It is saying that the world is only united by fear and sadness, and that, if we are to be healed, the best that movies can do is provide a continuum of feeling.

I am resistant to the idea of a movie being produced, in part, in order to provide cross-promotion for a Disney-theme-park thrill ride. Still, it must be admitted that Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, with a marvelous script by Shrek’s Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, is one of the most thrillingly funny swashbucklers in ages. Johnny Depp, as Captain Jack Sparrow, has created a cool new pirate archetype—with his dreadlocks and bandanna and sly, slurry speech, he’s a rock-star-style brigand. His nemesis, Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, is a scurvy fop with skin the color of faded parchment. He and his undead mates—in the moonlight they become, literally, a skeleton crew—are so scrofulous that even their teeth are decayed instead of capped the way they usually are in Hollywood movies. The ships, especially Jack’s billowing Black Pearl, seem to have sprung full-blown from every boy’s most flagrant pirate fantasies. The law of commerce worked this time around: One terrific thrill ride has begotten another.

Candid Cameras