SEEING: 9/11 THROUGH DOCUMENTARY SHORTS
Following 9/11, artists, writers, historians, and the general public shared their responses through articles, novels, blog posts, films, performances, and other ways of expanding and contesting the accounts issued by political and military leaders. The result is known as “collective memory,” the set of often-competing narratives that nonetheless bind us together in living through and beyond this event. Join the Maine Humanities Council, SPACE Gallery, and Bates College Harward Center for Community Partnerships for a diverse program of short documentary films created as artistic responses to 9/11, pieces that collectively interrogate and unsettle how the events of that day are remembered.
- Luke Joerger and Ray Mendez, First Person 9/11, Parts 1, 2, 3. 8:35m (2001) First Person 9/11 presents camcorder footage shot by three New York artists on the day of the attacks. In part 1, Anthony Paris’s home movie of his wife and new baby suddenly cuts to footage of the smoking towers shot from his rooftop just a few blocks away. The visual incoherence of the accidental footage he records combines with their overheard confusion and worry to create a riveting portrait of the emotional tenor of the day. Part 2 features views of the World Trade Center shot by a stunned and audibly upset Luke Joerger, shooting the burning towers through the window of his Chelsea Hotel room and on the newsfeed of a hotel television. In Part 3, Ray Mendez, traveling on inline skates, turns his camera on the rubble of Ground Zero and its neighborhoods’ empty streets, the film’s perspective intermittently speeding through the eerie desolation and slowing down to capture the voices and experiences of exhausted workers and street-weary residents. The point-of-view footage that comprises First Person 9/11 provides a rare glimpse of how individual New Yorkers experienced the day of the attacks, providing viewers access to an emotional rawness that counters the spectacle and the overheated nationalism that dominate images of the day.
- Valerie Soe, Carefully Taught. 4m (2002) Public grief and bewilderment following the 9/11 attacks quickly gave way to expressions of what experimental filmmaker and writer Valerie Soe terms a “sinister mandatory patriotism” of a distinctly xenophobic cast. Carefully Taught is an essay film that responds to this and other aspects of 9/11’s political aftermath with a montage of scenes from well-known film musicals, including Oklahoma!, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Music Man, and South Pacific. Underscoring the exuberant song and dance routines, the filmmaker reads a short essay analyzing the national mood that gives voice to her own concerns over the fate of cherished freedoms—rights of free speech and political dissent—and possibilities for a more inclusive America. In the context of these somber reflections, the performance footage reads as manic and aggressive, conjuring, in Soe’s words, “a fever dream of fear and anxiety” whose implicit message resonates with the racist culture targeted by the closing soundtrack: Rogers and Hammerstein’s blistering satire of American racism, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”
- Phil Solomon, Innocence and Despair, 5:25m. Innocence and Despair is another found footage work, composed of 16mm footage from the filmmaker’s own previous work and 16mm reels from the early twentieth century. This subdued, darkly monochromatic impressionistic video explores the psychic charge of the horrific events of that day by conjuring what Solomon understands as Americans’ collective innocence prior to 9/11, when such an attack for many of us seemed unimaginable—an innocence that now seems impossible to imagine. The idea of depicting a condition of being “before” by screening it through the despairing emotional tone of the “after” is reproduced visually through how Solomon superimposes experimental footage of watery abstractions over archival footage of early summer holidays from the beginning of the last century. In an artist’s statement, Solomon explains that the palimpsest these images form is meant to suggest “how the summering people in my little film could never have imagined looking up at the New York City sky at a world such as existed on that day.”
- Leon Grodski & Pearl Gluck, Great Balls of Fire, 6m Filming from his Williamsburg rooftop the second tower of the World Trade Center on fire and falling, Leon Grodski spent much of the next 48 hours roaming Brooklyn and Downtown Manhattan with his camera. Footage of Brooklyn Hasidim handing out water to people fleeing Manhattan on foot via the Williamsburg bridge, pedestrians in face masks guarding against the destroyed towers’ toxic ash, and street graffiti responding almost immediately to the attacks, all invoke the tense, surreal atmosphere of a city in shock. The centerpiece of this short observational documentary is a literal “man-on-the-street” interview, which Grodski intercuts with his other footage. Its subject is a panhandling, performing homeless man, James E. Jones, who opines that the events of September 11 came as no surprise to him, given our nation’s history of political violence. Through Grodski’s lens, Jones becomes a street griot whose musings help make sense of the surrounding chaos.
- Robert Edwards, The Voice of the Prophet, 7m (2002) Released after the attacks, Voice of the Prophet is a chillingly prescient 1998 interview with Rick Rescorla, a combat veteran for the American and British militaries who, at the time of his death on September 11, 2001, was the head of security for the financial services firm, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, which occupied twenty-two floors in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The interview was filmed in Rescorla’s 44th floor office. Rescorla is among the most widely profiled victims of the terrorist attacks, having chosen to stay in the building to oversee his offices’ evacuation; he is widely credited for the fact that only thirteen of the firm’s thirty-seven-hundred employees died in the building’s collapse. In the interview he turns from a discussion of his own battle experiences to what he predicts will be the future of warfare, which he describes along the lines of the so-called War on Terror declared following the 9/11 attacks.
- Ira Sachs, Untitled, 6m (2002) Ira Sachs, director/writer behind the acclaimed feature-length films Keep the Lights On, Love is Strange, and this summer’s Little Men, offers a stunning portrait of collective grief, at once intensely intimate and wholly public. The silent film simply consists of the images of the dead, taken from missing person fliers posted on the streets of New York in the days following the attacks. Sachs’s poignant response to 9/11 presents photographs taken at weddings and birthday parties, on fishing trips and vacations, of new parents with their babies and of groups of friends or family with individual faces circled in sharpie. There is no narrative or graphic content here, no text beyond handwriting on the flyers. Untitled gives viewers access to the human scale of trauma and loss, too often displaced by the hyperbole of politicized grief.
- Alejandro Iñárritu, Segment Mexico, 11m. This experimental documentary is acclaimed Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu’s (Birdman, The Revenant) contribution to an episodic, multinational collaboration titled 11’09”01—September 11, for which eleven filmmakers representing eleven nations were invited to make short films reflecting on the events from a global perspective. In its style and message, Iñárritu’s experimental found footage film is a clear standout, addressing the difficulty of representing the traumatic attack on the World Trade Center in visual terms, given how images of the towers just before their collapse have been repeated and spectacularized to the point where they seem to lose their capacity to emotionally move us. He largely removes the visual element from the film altogether, turning instead to documentary sound as a way to renew viewers’ emotional connection to the events.
- Laura Plotkin, 21, 3m (2002) In the fall of 2001, violent attacks targeting individuals perceived to be Arab or Muslim proliferated across the country. Laura Plotkin’s haunting black-and-white film presents a victim’s first-person account of a random act of racist violence that occurred ten days after 9/11. Life-long Brooklyn resident Niomi was walking down a New York street when she was physically accosted by a stranger, who roughly grabbed her and spat in her face, shouting at her to go back to the Middle East. Plotkin’s choice not to disclose Niomi’s ethnic identity, in conjunction with the camera’s tight close-ups of her face, challenges viewers to confront their own complicity with the assumptions behind her racial profiling by her unknown assailant.
- Ilana Rein, Periphery, 15m (2002) Director and screenwriter Ilana Rein, better known for filmmaking that bridges documentary and science fiction genres, began her career with this response to 9/11. Periphery chronicles the transforming national culture within the first year following the events of that day. The video explores how ordinary New Yorkers, without personal connection to the World Trade Center or the Ground Zero recovery and cleanup effort, experienced the changes to the immediate world of the city they call home as well as their thoughts about the broader political climate for the nation. An attempt to intervene into media complicity with the so-called War on Terror, Periphery decentralizes the dominant narrative about the attacks on the World Trade Center as a collective “national” experience by focusing on the local and the personal, comparing the weeks immediately following the attacks to the first summer after.
- Kevin Lee, Take a Look: New York City Chinatown Post 9/11, 4m (2001) The concept of the “ordinary New Yorker” comes under implicit scrutiny in Kevin Lee’s documentary set in and around the city’s Chinatown in the months following the twin towers’ collapse. Only 10 blocks away from the former World Trade Center site, this neighborhood’s businesses saw extensive financial losses as a result of the attacks and its residents and business owners were in many other ways personally affected. Lee’s film consists largely of excerpts from interviews with people who live, work, and shop in Chinatown about their personal experiences of and feelings about the nearby disaster. At the time the documentary was made, the impact of the disaster on Chinatown and its residents and business owners was almost completely overlooked. The film counters dominant and ethnocentric media narratives about New York after 9/11.
- Nashid Fareed, Forgotten Lessons, 11m (2001) Forgotten Lessons presents a montage of media images intended to situate the collective horror of the post-9/11 moment within a broader political context. Addressing the rise of a popular military nationalism, the recent history of U.S. foreign policy, and a nascent peace movement committed to responding to the War in Afghanistan, the film’s visual essay is underscored by the dialogue Fareed stages between two unlikely historical interlocutors: self-described “War President” George W. Bush and Civil Rights leader and non-violence proponent Martin Luther King, Jr.