Too often, we see ‘art’ (in the very loosest sense of the word) in the service of the state: film as propaganda has been with us as long as moviemaking. The likes of Black Hawk Down pitch the idealistic self-image of the world’s only hyperpower as truth, pretending to chronicle real events in a credible way. And even if we don’t all recognise propaganda when we see it, we know that it exists.
Art (in a stricter sense) in the service of socio-political commentary is seen much more rarely, and rarer still when it succeeds. This film, I think, succeeds admirably in being a combination of art, entertainment, and thought-provoking commentary. At least half of the segments from the 11 film-makers are intriguing as well as moving, and show a different perspective on the event that has been called by overwrought news-creatures “When the world changed forever”. Several of the segments show that, for large numbers of people, the world didn’t change much at all: tragedies the world over go unacknowledged in the west, while the privileged few expect their tragedies to shake the world.
The film opens with a challenge: the offering from Iran, showing desperately poor Afghan refugees living in an Iranian refugee camp. A class of children seated on mud bricks attempt to answer the question “What important thing happened recently?” The offerings, ranging from “Two men drowned in the well” to “My aunt was stoned to death” show that the reality known by these people is not the comfortable middle class life we have. Similarly, an Israeli offering showing the chaos caused by a suicide bomb, and a film by Danis Tanovic (No Man’s Land) showing the commemoration by Bosnian women of the massacre in Srebrnica, show that both terrorism and tragic wholesale death were familiar to many before the World Trade Towers went down.
Two others deal directly with the aftermath of these events. A gently humorous film from Idrissa Ouedraogo follows a group of Burkina Faso boys in their quest to catch Osama Bin Laden for the reward, needed by one boy so that he can buy medicine for his mother. Mira Nair, director of Monsoon Wedding, tackles the true story of a Pakistani family whose missing son was suspected of being one of the terrorists. Both show the unpalatable realities that come from extreme acts and extreme responses to them, a viewpoint that is sorely missed in much of the first world.
For my money, the absolute best comes from an unexpected corner: Ken Loach, a director of what I would call the “English Dreary” style of film-making. This time, Loach abandons his usual perspective on the British working class in favour of a Chilean refugee. Told in the form of an open letter to US citizens struggling to come to terms with the events in New York, this segment does not shy from making some hard points. The fact that Chileans and New Yorkers share an anniversary of tragedy is used to suggest that recognition of the earlier is needed by the sufferers of the latter (or at least the government of same).
And if I might be permitted a possibly controversial comment, after the events in New York the world expressed sympathy for people in the US, and there was a possibility for a new world to come into being. Alas, the US government has since used those events as an excuse to perpetrate more of the same that they’ve been delivering for about 50 years, and have since squandered all that goodwill and created more enemies. Loach in particular makes it heart-breakingly clear that the US is hardly a sole victim of terror or indeed a blameless innocent, while still conveying the compassion felt by one victim for another.
Shohei Imamura, director of Warm Water Under A Red Bridge, finishes the set, in a dreamily allegorical piece about a World War II veteran who thinks he’s a snake. In a manner reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, the film somehow manages to combine an awareness that the horrors of war can extend beyond the battlefield with an understanding of the endless consequences. That is, the madness of the veteran, caused by war, is itself the cause of divisions within the community, and these fractures in turn have other effects.
So I’d have to recommend this film as both intriguing film-making and highly intelligent socio-political commentary. It won’t be an easy watch, but it will be a very rewarding experience. I saw it first at the inaugural Adelaide International Film Festival this year (2003), and the large audience was clearly moved. The timing, too, is particularly apposite, since it’s only a couple of weeks since it was revealed that the White House directed the EPA to falsify air safety reports of the area around Ground Zero, and it won’t be long before the “official” version of the story comes out. Watch this, think on it, and then consider what we can all do.