In the first and most eloquent segment of September 11, an omnibus package of 11 shorts by major filmmakers from around the world, Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf (Blackboards) centers on an Afghan village just after Sept. 11, where a teacher has rounded up her young students for class. She asks them if they've heard about the really big news. A little boy, echoing the buzzing rumor mill, replies that he heard two men have fallen down a local well. Exasperated, the teacher leads the children to a towering chimney and prompts them to imagine the two towers, just so they can begin to fathom the magnitude of the tragedy. To follow Makhmalbaf's allegory, the other directors involved in September 11 should be like the teacher, but most behave like children, filtering the events through their own painful solipsism. Some of the problem may be timing: The anthology premiered at the Toronto Film Festival exactly one year after Sept. 11, so perhaps the artists lose in perspective what they might gain in immediacy. After all, few people would claim that the dashed-off likes of Paul McCartney's "Freedom" and Neil Young's "Let's Roll" are among the best songs those artists have ever written. But even if their entries had been made several years later, this group would probably still miss the chimney for the well. As commissioned by French producer Alain Brigand, each segment clocks in at 11 minutes, nine seconds, and one frame (11'9"01 was the European title), but otherwise, the imposing list of participants had free reign. The worst segments barely acknowledge the World Trade Center victims before digging into U.S. foreign policy; that may be a fair enough gambit in another context, but here the "what goes around, comes around" attitude is resoundingly tasteless. Egypt's Youssef Chahine chats awkwardly with the ghost of a Marine killed in Beirut, educating him about the victims of American violence abroad and listening sympathetically to the proud parents of a Palestinian suicide bomber. In a similar vein, Britain's Ken Loach connects 9/11/01 to 9/11/73, when a CIA-sponsored coup ousted Chile's democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende in favor of murderous dictator General Pinochet–a case, Loach stridently points out, where the U.S. was as much an "enemy of freedom" as the WTC bombers. Other entries mingle the personal and the political with varying degrees of success, leaving only Mexico's Alejandro González Iñárritu to tackle the event head-on, splicing a harrowing soundscape against flash-frames of bodies dropping from the burning towers. The two segments set near Ground Zero, by Sean Penn and France's Claude Lelouch, are inevitably saccharine, both groping for some bittersweet moment to salvage from the tragedy. Perhaps everyone should have taken a cue from Japan's Shohei Imamura, who concludes September 11 with a lovably eccentric WWII parable about a war-damaged soldier who thinks he's a snake. Until filmmakers get a little distance, maybe they'd be better off ignoring such projects.
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