The Arts

Eleven Filmmakers Deal with 9/11 Shockwaves

September 11 terrorist attacks
Marcy Borders takes refuge in an office building in New York, Sept. 11, 2002 (Photo: AFP). 

On Sept. 11, a unique film will be appearing on French screens: 11’09”01, conceived in a spirit of urgency to respond to an unprecedented event. In the process of bringing the film to fruition, some obstacles that seemed insurmountable were overcome. The result attained was unlikely on two counts: first, the fact it even exists, and second, its rich emotional content, cinematographic qualities, and themes for reflection—some of them quite polemical.

Like everyone else, Alain Brigand was dumbfounded as he followed the destruction of the twin towers on his TV screen. As a television producer, he could sense, better than most people, how much the audiovisual media ran the risk of freeze-drying the event, portraying it in a simplistic manner, and ultimately distorting it. “I am familiar with the workings of television newscasting; that is what I do. But this time I told myself that something different had to be stirred up in the face of an event of this magnitude. To me, it seemed that the rest of the planet had to be able to react, not just Americans and Europeans. I wanted to get people to talk, to bring forth other images.”

Brigand looked to the medium of film to take up the challenge. The day after the attacks, the idea came to him of a collaborative international film, put together with contributions from filmmakers from every part of the world.

He wrote up a project based on the basic idea of 11 filmmakers, each producing a film lasting 11 minutes, nine seconds, and one frame, then sent a message to the man who seemed the most capable of turning his idea into reality: Jean-Marie Messier, then the head of [media conglomerate] Vivendi Universal. Messier had at his disposal all the financial and political resources to carry off a project of this kind. And since he was actually in New York on Sept. 11, Messier wanted to find a way to manifest his shock and solidarity. Brigand had knocked at the right door.

He now admits he had not realized the scale of the difficulties inherent in such a project, especially with the goal of having a film ready to be released on the following Sept. 11, in the world of filmmaking with its much slower pace than television. In February, he found a helmsman for his project: producer Jacques Perrin. Perrin was quite aware of the difficulty of the task he was undertaking, but that made him take it on with all the more enthusiasm. His company, Galatée Films, responsible for films like Peuple migrateur, was used to challenges. At that time the list contained the 10 foreign names that today appear in the credits: Youssef Chahine (Egypt), Amos Gitai (Israel), Shohei Imamura (Japan), Alejandro González Iñarritu (Mexico), Ken Loach (Britain), Samira Makhmalbaf (Iran), Mira Nair (India), Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso), Sean Penn (United States), and Danis Tanovic (Bosnia). 

“I chose artists as much as I chose representatives of geographical regions,” Brigand says, while admitting that he had not achieved gender equity, much as he would have liked to. His list was still missing the name of the French participant, who turned out to be the hardest to find, since a number of the filmmakers contacted were overwhelmed with ongoing projects. Once asked, Claude Lelouch said yes immediately.

One paradox stemming from the egalitarianism of the project is that each short film was framed in a particular mindset, required different resources, and above all, was produced in regions where the cost of living (and movie-making) varies by a factor of up to 10. With a limit of 400,000 euros, each filmmaker had to find some way to complete his or her project while working under time constraints (imperative almost to the split second), with the deadline for delivery being July 15 at the latest, and format constraints (standard copy 35 mm 1.85 format, no matter what format was used for the filming; the sound was also subject to the same standards).

On the other hand, each filmmaker enjoyed total freedom in how he or she completed the assignment: to make a film “inspired by the reverberations of Sept. 11 rather than by the event itself,” explains Perrin. “This has left room for some extremely varied reflections, both stylistically and thematically.” The only project that had to be abandoned was that of Giuseppe Tornatore, who had planned to compose “a kind of requiem made up of photos of the victims, with music of Ennio Morricone in the background. The legal problems were insurmountable,” asserts Nicolas Mauvernay.

After having been told the names of their companions in this adventure, each filmmaker had to agree to work without any knowledge of what the others were doing. Samira Makhmalbaf was the first to deliver a finished product, a very moving film shot in an Afghan refugee camp in Iran.

Sean Penn, who immediately agreed to the project, is said to have gotten the idea for his contribution when Alain Brigand was his guest. Brigand paid a visit to each of the filmmakers. Certain projects were more “touchy,” such as Amos Gitai’s contribution, made up of a single sequence filmed on a street in Tel Aviv, for which it was necessary to reconstitute the scene immediately following a terrorist attack the very day after an explosion had killed seven people in that same city.

Idrissa Ouedraogo’s film, in which the character of Osama bin Laden appears, aroused the consternation of local officials, who wanted to know if the actor playing Bin Laden was the “real” one. Danis Tanovic kept the subject of his film a secret until he had delivered a very moving piece of work. “All the moviemakers have shown great humility,” Perrin emphasizes. “Right as they were filming, they were still asking themselves about the way they should film and the right tone to conjure up such an event.” 

When seven of the filmmakers were present at the Cannes Festival for the announcement of the film, they agreed not to reveal how they would approach the theme. Indeed, the approaches varied considerably—ranging from a morality tale to psycho-sensory experience, with a history lesson and a fantasy account in between.

Alain Brigand had dreamed of a worldwide release on Sept. 11, 2002, but the laws governing distribution decided otherwise. The film will be released in France on that date, but will have to adapt to local circumstances in the 11 other countries where it is sold. “It would have been inappropriate to release it in the United States on Sept. 11, a day of recollection and commemoration during which the film has no place,” notes Perrin. 

In any case, the film has not yet been purchased in the United States, but its presentation at the film festivals of Venice (Sept. 6) and Toronto (Sept. 11) may perhaps remedy this.