Foreign directors offer diverse views on 9/11

There are two reasons why "11'09"01," a collection of international movies about the Sept. 11 tragedies, won't play in a theater near you.

One is that the 11 films in this French-produced anthology - each lasting 11 min. and nine seconds - are too short for the standardized formats of regular movie theaters. But surely an exception could be made for such a timely item, representing views that get little or no exposure in the major US media.

The deeper reason why "11'09"01" may play only in specialized venues is that it seeks candor and diversity without softening or censoring the various ideas of its 11 directors - each a major filmmaker with a distinguished track record.

"For every viewer, there's going to be at least one segment that's upsetting," says Gavin Smith, editor of Film Comment magazine, which is presenting the collection's US première in its annual "Film Comment Selects" program at Lincoln Center, running through Feb. 14.

Mr. Smith didn't personally choose the movies in this program, and some segments of "11'09''01" violate his own standards of acceptable taste. "But that's the point of the project," he says. "It's a utopian exercise in world cinema."

Among the episodes that have drawn fire are those by British director Ken Loach, a social critic whose "Ladybird Ladybird" and "My Name Is Joe" found large US audiences, and Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose "Amores Perros" was a contender for best foreign-language film in the 2001 Oscar race.

Mr. Loach's film bypasses Sept. 11, 2001, for a look at Sept. 11, 1973, when a US-backed coup toppled Chilean leader Salvador Allende from power. The movie's implication is that the 2001 tragedies have roots in earlier American adventurism, an idea set forth before now by such social commentators as Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky.

Mr. Iñárritu's movie consists largely of a blacked-out screen, interrupted by fleeting glimpses of horrific World Trade Center images. The message appears to be that we could better understand the true nature of Sept. 11 if we shut out the incessant media blare surrounding it.

Other segments are less confrontational. Sean Penn tells the poignant, ambiguous story of an older man (Ernest Borgnine) whose private sorrows mean more to him than the Sept. 11 horrors that erupt outside his lower Manhattan window.

Mira Nair, the Indian-American director of hits like "Monsoon Wedding" and "Salaam Bombay," unfolds a fact-based drama revealing the effects of post-Sept. 11 prejudice on US ethnic minorities.

Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf shows how incomprehensible the global tragedy is to schoolchildren in a very different region of the world.

By contrast, Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine expresses deep anger at what he sees as US hypocrisy, using fictional encounters among an American soldier, a Palestinian suicide bomber, and a movie director (himself) to raise the specter of past bloodshed in the name of American values.

If there is something in "11'09''01" to offend everyone, there is also something to inform everyone.

American movies have barely begun to explore Sept. 11, partly because it takes time to make a theatrical production, and partly because the US film industry is more committed to entertainment than to probing complex issues.

"11'09''01" is must-see viewing for anyone interested in how Sept. 11 appears, accurately or not, to influential artists and commentators around the world.

For now it must be caught at film festivals and other noncommercial venues, but its inclusion in "Film Comment Selects" - which has launched the US runs of major movies like "The Piano Teacher" and "The Ring" in recent years - may help propel it to theaters in months to come.

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