Movies based on actual events change emotional color depending on the light of history in which they’re watched; September 11 changes 11 times within one viewing, and will doubtless change again for those who can bear to watch it more than once. The title is not only instantly recognizable as the date of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., but also informs the structure of the omnibus assembled by Alain Brigand: The French producer commissioned 11 filmmakers from 11 countries to each produce a film ”inspired” by the tragedy with a running time of exactly 11 minutes, 9 seconds, and one frame; the assembled meditation was originally shown on the first anniversary of the attacks, and was released last year in Europe.
The gathering is impressive – among them Samira Makhmalbaf from Iran, Shohei Imamura from Japan, Mira Nair from India, Claude Lelouch from France, and Sean Penn representing the U.S. The work, inevitably, is of varied artistic quality and political stance, some of it framed to provoke. Britain’s Ken Loach (”Sweet Sixteen”) thinks of Sept. 11, 1973, when the U.S. backed a brutal coup against the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile; Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanovic (”No Man’s Land”) reflects on the grief of Srebrenica widows. In the gentlest of fictional tales, Makhmalbaf imagines a teacher explaining the catastrophe to children in an Afghan village; and in the silliest parable of loss and hope, Sean Penn requires Ernest Borgnine to lumber around in his underwear as a widower whose view of the world had literally been darkened for years by shadows from the Twin Towers.
In the most shocking contribution to this self-conscious but fascinating sampling of art challenged by life, Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu (”Amores Perros”) makes a horrifying suspense story out of a soundtrack and a blank screen on which specks of image begin to flash. The gut knows before the mind does what those specks are – bodies falling through the air. No amount of moviegoing will ever make the picture fathomable.