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9/11 shorts offer hit & miss views

TORONTO--The 11 films by 11 filmmakers in the film "11/09/01," all trying to address 9/11 in 11 minutes, are uneven and not entirely satisfying. One wonders if the producers, who are from France, should have recruited directors of shorts rather than features, but four of them have undeniable impact, and one is devastating.

The film, which caused much discussion at the Venice International Film Festival last month, had its North American premiere here at the Toronto festival and will go into limited release. With its 11 viewpoints from all over the world, not all of them pro-American, it celebrates, the opening titles say, "subjective conscience" and "free expression."

Yes, but would it have killed at least one of these 11 directors to make a clear-cut attack on the terrorists? The banner headline in the Toronto Star the day after the movie's screening reported that the prime minister Jean Chretien "ties 9/11 terror to Western 'greed.' " We in the West have much to be ashamed of, but oddly enough I don't think al-Qaida's hatred of us is based on our greed; we are infidels who deserve to die because we pray to the wrong God.

The overpowering segment is by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu of Mexico, best known for "Amores Perros." He keeps his screen entirely black for most of the 11 minutes, occasionally interrupting it with flashes of bodies falling from the burning World Trade Center towers. We realize after a while that the muffled thuds on the soundtrack are the sounds of the bodies landing.

The soundtrack begins and ends with a collage of excited voices, and during the 11 minutes, we also hear snatches of newscasts and part of a cell phone call from a passenger on one of the hijacked airplanes ("We have a little problem on the plane, and I wanted to say I love you"). Toward the end, there is the sound of fearsome hammering, and we realize with a chill that this is the sound of the floors collapsing, one on top of another, growing louder. It must have been recorded from a radio inside the building; it is the last thing that the terrified people inside the towers heard. This film is so strong because it allows us to use our imaginations. It generates almost unbearable empathy.

Another of the best shorts is by Ken Loach of Great Britain, who films a Chilean writing a letter to Americans in which he offers his sympathy. Then he recalls that on another Tuesday, Sept. 11, in 1973, the democratically elected government of Chile was overthrown by a CIA-funded military coup, President Salvador Allende was murdered, and the right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet was installed as the U.S. puppet, to rule over a reign of torture and terror. I wrote in my notes: "Do unto others as you would have them do onto you."

The third powerful short is by Mira Nair of India, who tells the true story of a Pakistani mother in New York whose son got on the subway to go to medical school and never returned. She was questioned by the FBI, her son was named as a suspected terrorist, and only six months later, his body was found in the rubble, where, as a trained medic, he had gone to help. In the film, his hero's coffin is draped in the American flag.

One of the most sympathetic shorts comes from Iran. Samira Makhmalbaf's effort shows a teacher trying to explain to her students--Afghan refugees in Iran--what has happened in New York. The kids get into a discussion about God, and whether he would kill some people to make others; "God isn't crazy," one child finally decides. None of the children can imagine a tall building, so the teacher takes them to stand beneath a smokestack, and the smoke from the top makes an eerie mirror of the catastrophe.

Other segments miss the mark. Amos Gitai of Israel shows a TV news reporter broadcasting live from the scene of a suicide bombing when she is taken off the air because of the news from New York. This situation could have generated an interesting commentary, but the reporter is depicted as so self-centered and goofy that the piece derails.

A film by Egypt's Youssef Chahine also has an interesting premise--a director is visited by the ghost of a Marine who was killed in the Beirut bombing--but the piece is unfocused, half-realized.

The only note of humor comes in a charming segment from Burkina Faso, in Africa, where five poor boys believe they have spotted Osama bin Laden in their town, and plot to capture him and win the $25 million reward. They are not entirely off the track; the actor hired to play bin Laden could be his double.

Other films are from Bosnia's Danis Tanovic, who shows women continuing to march with the names of their dead, despite the deaths in New York; Japan's Shohnei Imamura, who shows a man who survived the atomic bombing but has become convinced he is a snake; Sean Penn of the United States, who stars Ernest Borgnine as an old man who rejoices when his dead wife's flowers bloom, not realizing they get sunlight because the towers have fallen, and France's Claude Lelouch, with a sentimental piece about a deaf woman who does not realize what has happened until her boyfriend returns alive, covered with dust.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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