The September 11, 2001, attacks on America inspired several films, documentaries, and short films, ranging from conspiracy theories (according to Zeitgeist: The Movie, the American government deliberately allowed planed to crash into the World Trade Centre and massacre their own citizens) to emotion-heavy Hollywood productions (World Trade Center is about two government officers who get trapped under the rubble). Filmmakers from all over have weighed in on how America – and the world – changed for the worse after one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in recent memory. Even the Mumbai film industry did its bit by looking at post 9/11 racial profiling in New York and My Name is Khan and exposing a terrorist sleeper cell in Kurbaan.
In terms of sheer imagery, there is nothing to beat the still shocking footage of the second plane flying into the second WTC tower even as the first one was smouldering. James Marsh’s sublime documentary Man on Wire (2008) presents a previous act of audacity involving the two towers, but one that was benign and beautiful. Marsh uses archival footage of French trapeze artist Phillipe Petit’s illegal high-wire walk between the towers in 1974, interviews with Petit, recreations and rare photographs to pay an indirect tribute to the Manhattan landmarks. The feature film based on the event, called The Walk and featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, reduced the event to a 3D IMAX spectacle.
The spirit of New York City’s ability to absorb destruction and tragedy and keep its giant heart open to its citizens is the subject of The Cats of Mirikitani (2006). The film profiles the titular 80-year-old Japanese American artist who was homeless at the time of the attacks. Director Linda Hattenford had previously befriended Mirikitani and interviewed him about his drawings of cats, internment camps for Japanese Americans after World War II, and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings by the US. After 9/11, Hattendorf sheltered Mirikitani and discovered a painful history of persecution, displacement and resilience with several parallels to the present.
Some of the commentary on the American policies in West Asia that led to 9/11 came from surprising sources. Steven Spielberg’s Munich is about the Israeli spy agency Mossad’s hunt for the Palestinian terrorists who killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics. As the team starts slaying its targets, agent Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) is gripped by self doubt about the morality of state-sponsored vengeance. Where does it all end, he asks his resolute handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), after he has fled Israel and relocated to Brooklyn in New York City. The film’s final, enigmatic shot is of the intact Two Towers.
Among the more moving tributes to the men and women who died in the attacks on the Two Towers is a series of animated short films produced by the filmmaking duo Mike and Tim Rauch. They invited relatives of the victims to record their memories of that day and laid these testimonies against animated recreations. Among the films is Always a Family, in which a woman recalls receiving a phone call from her ex-husband, who was working in one of the towers, soon after the planes crashed into them. “As much as he used to drive me crazy, he was my family, and my best friend,” she says. In another episode, a father talks about losing both his sons, one 36 and the other 34, in the attacks. One was a firefighter and the other, a police detective.
The several artistic responses to the attacks from outside America includes the anthology film 11’09’’01 September 11 (2002). The French production comprises 11 films by 11 filmmakers of 11 minutes, 9 seconds and one frame each. The contributors include Alejandro Inarittu, Mira Nair, Samira Makhmalbaf, Denis Tanovic and Sean Penn. Within the constraints of this format, two films stand out. British filmmaker Ken Loach reminds us of the other, older September 11 attack on democracy in Chile. On this day in 1973, a US-backed coup ousted the democratically elected President Salvador Allende and put the country into the vice grip of the dictator Augusto Pinochet. Allende shot himself during the coup.
Japanese director Shohei Imamura’s segment goes back in time to World War II. A Japanese soldier who is shocked by his country’s atrocities in China imagines himself as a snake and crawls around the place. Stripped of his humanity, this slithering being reminds us of the perils of empire building and the different faces of terrorism then, now and forever.