Underground Zero

Underground Zero

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a call was put out by filmmakers Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi for short films that in some way addressed the events of that day or were inspired by the events of that day. 150 filmmakers were asked for submissions. I’m not sure how many submissions they actually got, but ultimately they put together this collection of 13 of them. (Actually my impression from doing a little reading about the project is that there are two or more versions of Underground Zero, so I should say just that the one I happened to see has 13.)

The films average only about six minutes in length. Certainly some appealed to me more than others, but they’re all so short that even the ones that didn’t do much for me were quickly over anyway. So I never had a chance to lose interest to a significant degree.

The tolling bell in between segments is a little hokey, but on the whole I found it to be a worthwhile, at times moving, collection of films. But let me address each one briefly:

The collection starts off strong with one of my favorites, The End of Summer. A little girl—I’m guessing about 6—whom we don’t see (the visuals are of a peaceful, empty suburban neighborhood that looks and feels likes the utter opposite of the congestion of Manhattan and the chaos and violence of 9/11) gives her take on the attack. In my films I love to interview people about important subjects and get them to open up, children as much or more than anybody. So this fascinated me. She’s utterly sincere and unself-conscious in trying to get her mind around what happened and explain it, relating it as best she can to her extremely limited life experience and knowledge. (Maybe the terrorists were mad, she says, because the people from New York did something bad to them when they didn’t pay their bills.) The thing is, she’s probably less far off than the grown-ups, whose views are a product of propaganda and the emotionally-driven presuppositions and filters they’ve developed over a lifetime of illogicality.

The Voice of the Prophet is solid. It’s a very simplistic style film, just clips from a 1998 interview about war and terrorism with the head of security for one of the offices in the World Trade Center. He’s ex-military, and for a while you think it’s just going to be the usual boilerplate about the need to get tough and stand up to the bad guys and realize we can’t afford too much liberty, etc., etc. But by the end he’s sounding more like Noam Chomsky, talking about how the military is used to enforce the interests of the largest corporations and how misguided it is to think America has either the right or the capacity to use brute force to inflict its will on the world, and how sooner or later it’s all going to blow back and we’re going to have major terrorist attacks in big cities in America. He was killed on 9/11.

China Diary is one of the longest segments, and one of the weakest ones. The filmmaker was on vacation with her mother in China on the day of the attacks. This is a video diary of her trip and her reflections about the attacks. A lot of her reflections actually have to do with an estranged grandfather who died long ago. The connection with 9/11 is that he was one of the workers who built the Twin Towers, but mostly she just talks about other aspects of his life and her family. It’s all quite tangential to 9/11, and not very interesting.

Isaiah’s Rap is a teenager reciting a poem in rap style about 9/11. It’s trite and predictable. On the one hand, that’s fine. I respect the sincerity of it, the fact that he’s expressing himself from the heart as best he can on a very important subject. On the other hand, the actual substance of it didn’t do anything for me. Plus I’m sure viscerally I start off with a slight prejudice against it because I don’t care for rap music and that whole defiant, sing song, declamatory verbal style.

Brief Encounter With Tibetan Monks is mildly humorous. I think the filmmaker knows that; I certainly hope he’s not taking the monks seriously. The monks are asked the usual Miss America type question about how to bring about peace in the world. They start off with some platitude supporting America’s wars, perhaps thinking that’s the answer the questioner wants. Then when they’re asked again, they can’t come up with anything. Finally one says something like “There will be no answer to your question. Sometimes the truth cannot be expressed, even when it is the truth.” In other words, they know about the same amount or less than the little girl who opens the film, but they feel a need to bullshit where she doesn’t. Luckily they’re bad at it, hence the humor.

Scene From an Endless War is three or four clips from news shows—the musical intros and visuals of soldiers and politicians and such—looped for a couple minutes. I don’t know exactly what it means. Maybe an allusion to the fact that if you watch a given network you’ll see the same intro over and over dozens or hundreds of times over the weeks or months until they change it. And the kinds of things they report also will have a sameness, as do the wars America constantly fights. It’s all the same shit time after time, just different people dying, and different politicians and news readers and commentators making all the same points in the same ways.

One of the odder films is The World is a Classroom, about Zahedi teaching a filmmaking seminar. This is one of the ones only tangentially connected to 9/11. (9/11 happens early in the semester in which the class is being taught.) Actually the bulk of it is about Zahedi’s conflict with a student. Zahedi is having the class do some New Age exercise in getting emotionally comfortable where they dance around the room or something. One of the students comments, accurately, that it’s silly. Zahedi has a hissy fit, trying to enforce some kind of ultra-sensitive atmosphere where no one is judged, no one is criticized, everyone is positive and full of happy talk. Zahedi tries to throw the student out of his class, and basically the student calmly tells him to pound sand, leaving them at an impasse. I think Zahedi comes off worse than the student, though I gather most of the class members (and I would guess most viewers) think the student is just being a stubborn jerk for no reason.

A Strange Mourning is unnarrated footage of some post-9/11 patriotism rally, where everyone’s waving flags, honking horns at each other, chanting “USA! USA!,” playing Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” etc. I’m not sure if the intent is to celebrate it or to be concerned by it, but I found it decidedly creepy, as I always find stuff like that.

To this point, the first two segments were probably still my favorites. But I liked the next one quite a bit. 21 is an interview with a young woman in New York, who looks at most slightly ethnic—and by the way was born in this country—recounting a post-9/11 incident in which she was spat upon, verbally harassed, and then roughed up by people (the kind of people who love rallies like the one in the previous segment) for being a “foreigner” and the cause of 9/11. When she appeals to a passerby for help, he reacts with disdain toward her and joins her attackers. Just really ugly stuff. The police tell her there’s really no point in writing up a report on it and just to be on her way, so it never gets officially recorded in any statistics or anything. Thankfully it’s preserved in this short film.

Carefully Taught is scenes from old movies and musicals, with a voiceover by a woman talking about how important it is not to let our emotional reactions to 9/11 and our uncertainty allow us to be manipulated into supporting wars and new limitations on liberty and such. Most or all of what she’s saying is true, and predictably went unheeded. So I agree with her in substance, but it’s one of the duller shorts. It’s a bit platitudinous, and it’s just her reading, so it lacks the kind of spontaneity we get in the opening segment with the little girl.

The World As We Know It is another film that didn’t particularly grab me, though again I mostly agree with its thrust (if I’m interpreting it correctly). People reflect in voiceovers about the wars of the 20th century, we hear broadcasts from 9/11, and it closes with descriptions of soldiers going off to war, indicating that we’re responding to war and violence the way we always respond to war and violence, i.e., with more war and violence, and that the cycle will presumably never end (until we do because of it).

Prayer from Jay Rosenblatt is the only one I’d seen before. I had had no idea it was conceived in the wake of 9/11 or had anything to do with 9/11. It’s just a few minutes of scenes of people around the world praying. It’s interesting stock footage, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scherezade” is a lovely piece of music, but whatever you take about 9/11 from this film will be 95% what you yourself come up with and 5% what’s actually here.

The film starts strong and finishes strong, but differently. The End of Summer is moving and has beauty to it, because the mind and sincerity of a child is moving and beautiful. The final piece, which is untitled, is moving in a different way. It’s utterly stark and simplistic, but that is just the right decision for the material, which is powerful and heartbreaking because it’s allowed to speak for itself. Reminiscent of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and its simple list of the names of the dead, this film consists solely of pictures posted at 9/11 of “missing” (i.e., nearly always dead) people. The audio is complete silence. There is not even any Ken Burns panning or any movement in how the photos are shot. Just one after another, two or three seconds each, for several minutes. People holding babies, people smiling, people at weddings, people in newspaper photos, people in group photos circled, people in faded photos where you can barely make them out. All ages, all races, all ethnicities, all modes of dress, all expressions, all loved enough for someone to be looking for them.

All gone.

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