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9/11 Film Series: Final Thoughts

The week of September 11 – 16th, 2011 I coordinated a 9/11 Film Series on the Winona State University campus to comemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack.

During the 2010-11 school year I began sponsoring campus film screenings as a way of promoting the show and expanding its mission. Initially I thought it would be good fun, and it was, to show a few provocative and important pictures and hopefully tie them into larger issues going on in cinema and in the culture at large.

Over the summer of 2011 I was struck with the approaching ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attack but when I tried to nail down a single film that would encapsulate the event or some piece of its aftermath, I felt as though I were neglecting the greater whole. So I decided that the only way I could really deal with the anniversary of 9/11 was to show a series of films that addressed, if not all, at least a broad spectrum of the issues involved.

Once I realized I’d have to show a series of films I knew I was going to need financial support and so I brought the project to a variety of campus departments, organizations, and individuals and the response was very positive. In all, the 9/11 Film Series was sponsored Winona State University’s Communication Studies Department, English Department, Department of Housing and Residence Life, Department of Theater and Dance, Office of Inclusion and Diversity, Office of Student Life and Development, the Philosophy Department, University Programming Activities Committee, Vic Colaizzi and Anne Plummer of the Art Department, and Jim Williams of the Theater Department. This coalition got behind the project and I’m grateful to them for helping to make this happen.

As I set about devising the screening schedule there were of course practical considerations based on what was available and what I’d be able to afford. But I also felt that the selection and arrangement of films should not be random but should take the viewers through the event and its aftermath.

One element I wanted to avoid was deliberate political partisanship. I have my own feelings about 9/11 and its aftermath but I did not believe it was appropriate for me to use the film series as a soap box or to use films that did the same. A lot of Hollywood’s response to September 11th was made of liberal soapbox statements such as Rendition and Redacted (as well as a few conservative battle cries like 300 and The Path to 9/11) and most of those pictures weren’t very good anyway so leaving them out was not difficult. But even pictures that were successful such as Green Zone or documentaries that were important to the history of the September 11th period such as Michael Moore’ Fahrenheit 9/11 had to be excluded because including them would alienate part of the audience and obfuscate the issues that needed to be dealt with.

In 1974 director Peter Davis released the documentary Hearts and Minds, which remains, in my opinion, one of the finest documentaries about the Vietnam War. According to Davis, he developed the film around three questions: Why did we go to Vietnam? What did we do when we got there? And what did that, in turn, do to us? As I selected and arranged the films in this series, I adapted Davis’ questions: What happened on 9/11? What did we do in response? And what did our response do to us?

From there I assembled six pictures that would address these questions, starting with United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass, which dramatizes and restages the 9/11 attack with an emphasis on the events aboard United Airlines Flight 93. That was followed by Osama, which is an Afghan film about a girl and her family living under the Taliban, and a pair of documentaries: Restrepo, which documents American troops in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, and Taxi to the Dark Side, which addresses the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by the American military and intelligence services. The series wrapped up with The Messenger, which is a dramatization about soldiers on a Casualty Notification Team, and Four Lions, which is a dark comedy about suicide bombers.

United 93 gave audiences the unique opportunity of facing the horror of 9/11. The key word there is “horror” because this film functions very much like a horror film, which allows people the opportunity to submit themselves to trauma from the safety of a theater seat and face their fears. Doing that represents the beginning of addressing our unresolved feelings about that day and coming to terms with it.

While arranging the film schedule, I deliberately set Osama up next to United 93. This was partly to do with the realities of intolerance directed at Muslim community after the September 11th attack and the ongoing sensitivity about that issue. There are many things interesting and unique about Osama but within the context of this series and coming off of the intensity of United 93, what this film contributes is a sense of empathy for the people of Afghanistan and makes an important  differentiation between the majority of peaceful Muslims and a minority of violent extremists.

Restrepo is an extraordinary piece of documentary filmmaking. Some of its extraordinary qualities are due to its objective style. There is no voice over telling us what to think, just a masterful collection of images and scenarios from the war front. In a way this film is more challenging to audiences because it requires them to think about the United States’ response to 9/11 and the blood, sweat, and tears that have been shed in the process. It is also extraordinary because it is one of the few major pieces of documentary cinema about war that actually focuses on life on the ground in Afghanistan.

Taxi to the Dark Side is more deliberate in its theme and tone as it explores what the United States did to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. With the recent releases of memoirs by former Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, this issue has returned to the talking head TV circuit which gave the film some fortuitous immediacy. But what is most important to take from Taxi the Dark Side, which will haunt this country for some time, is what it reveals about how our response to 9/11 affected us politically and militarily but also morally. After watching the abyss of horrors of United 93 and Osama, that abyss begins to stare back at us in Taxi to the Dark Side.

The Messenger’s story of soldiers returning home from the war confronts the audience with the aftermath of all this and explores how we treat the troops when they get here. Each character of The Messenger has their own issues to deal with, particularly loneliness and isolation. And when viewed after Restrepo and Taxi to the Dark Side, this film takes on added dimensions. But what The Messenger also suggests is the possibility of hope through compassion and love in all of its forms: romantic, familial, platonic, and brotherly.

The last film in the series was Four Lions, which is a comedy but a challenging one. Four Lions bookended this film series with United 93. Where the first film showed us the terror of that day, Four Lions invites us to laugh at it. Although that sounds vulgar, Four Lions picks up the absurdity of all this and plays it for maximum satirical effect. And if the goal of the terrorist is to terrorize—that is, to cause fear—then laughing at them might be the most devastating retaliation of all.

Part of the reason I do this show is that I think movies are important. And not just high class Hollywood Oscar bait or prestigious art films but the cumulative effects of cinema from family films to grindhouse movies. It is important to remember that cinema can have consequences. We know, for example, that Joseph Goebbels used motion pictures as one of the primary tools of the Nazi propaganda campaign, especially in driving and shaping anti-Semitic attitudes that paved the way for the Final Solution. But we can also look at a film like Schindler’s List and appreciate filmmakers exposing the horrors of the Holocaust and coping with its legacy.

Motion pictures cannot change the world. Only people can do that. Film can light the way, showing us the possibilities, the hopes, and the fears. But when the credits are over and the film runs its last reel we have to leave the theater seat and reenter the world. What we can hope for in the auditorium is illumination but that’s all for nothing if we forget about that on our trip back up the aisle.

You can find extended commentaries on each of the films screened in the 9/11 Film Series here:

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