Separate but Equal?

Watching thematically similar films back to back is one of my favourite ways to spend a day, it’s how I find out what I really love (and really hate).

Watching the four films from Iran, France, Mexico and USA in 11’09”01 – September 11 ( Makhmalbaf et al., 2002) was fascinating, and my final thoughts on each of the films have changed a lot as they’ve lived and breathed and grown in my head over time. Iran, France and Mexico pushed me to me question how and why they made me (and everyone else) feel the way they did, how we perceived them and how this relates to the way we see our own world.
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Iran

The opening shot of Samira Makhmalbaf’s film in which an old man laboriously pulls a bucket of water up from the well says so much about his world by raising so many questions. Why is there such a crowd watching him pull the bucket? Why is it being done by hand without even simple machinery? Why is an elder pulling the bucket, not a younger, fitter man? It’s also a subtle reminder of the struggle that many face for something that most Westerners take for granted.

The ambiguous sense of place at the start of this film is also enticing; we expect it to be set in Iran, yet the people are from Afghanistan. We question who they are, where they are and why. And we get a sense that these questions are also being asked by the Afghans of themselves.

As we follow the teacher from the field of bricks through the narrow alleys and then back to field, we begin to perceive how small this encampment is, and how insular and isolated its inhabitants must be. Their world is deliberately unpeeled through the conversations that the children have amongst themselves, including the normalcy of a woman being stoned to death and the possible deaths of two men building a well.

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Makhmalbaf’s use of children is very clever; their world is so small and they lack any sense of time, space or place. And they represent the ying and yang of innocence. When their teacher questions them about what they think is this enormously important and tragic event that has happened, they at first cannot conceive of anything outside of their own small encampment. On one hand, this innocence is a direct rebuttal to the American held stereotype of Afghans as vicious, lawless terrorists. But their naivete and ignorance of the world outside of their immediate environment also references America’s willful ignorance of the world outside of their nation, and of ways of life different to their own. It is a reminder that, fundamentally, people aren’t different from one another, only their circumstances are.

The emotions that permeate the film are ones of confinement, panic and fear. We question why the teacher is so desperate for the children to understand the enormity of the events in America, events that they couldn’t possibly understand. Her desperation speaks to her fear for the children and the uncertain future which they face trapped between Taliban oppression and American vengeance.

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France

Directed by Claude Lelouch, France’s entry seems at first glance very different to the previous one. But similar themes and devices are at work here, we find ourselves in another microcosmic world inhabited by people outside of their native environment (a French couple in New York), permeated by a sense of isolation and fear.

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We can find another similarity to Makhmalbaf’s film in how it forces the audience to question what they are being presented with. There is a sense that the entire film may be dream, a wishful scenario imagined by a grieving woman.

Indeed, the whole film has a dreamlike quality, sleep and dreams feature prominently. And Lelouch leaves time as an uncertain quantity, we never know how long the couple has been together, when the flashback to their first meeting took place (or if it even happened at all).

The whole film is a meditation on sensory deprivation, imposed both involuntary and by choice. The woman is deaf-mute and cannot scream for her lover to come back to her, but nor does she choose to get up from her table and look out of the window as the building shakes and the dog barks. The audience is left to consider whether or not she is at fault for being so ignorant of the events outside of her apartment.

The film’s many layers all serve to heighten the sense of all not being as it seems at first glance. And Lelouch uses his character’s deafness to exaggerate her isolation and the fear it brings; creating tension by showing the audience the attack before she is aware of it, making us hold our breath.

The characters seemed, like Iran’s, to represent America’s ignorance of the world outside of their own. Their unlikely reunion at the end harkens to the disparate American political groups coming together after the attacks to fight a common enemy in the “War on Terror”.

But ultimately, this investigates how everyone perceives reality differently, how subjective our experience really is, and how easy it is to consciously or subconsciously trick ourselves into an altered perception of the world.

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Mexico 

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film was difficult to watch. It uses news footage and audio to create an incredibly powerful film (aside from the last few minutes, which is overkill).  But I finished the film finding myself irritated by it.

It took a while to work out exactly why I found it so distasteful. I certainly feel that using the footage of the falling victims feels exploitative. But it wasn’t really what bothered me. I found the whole piece overly heavy handed in its emotional manipulation of the audience and patronising in its assumptions about them.

Now, all film is (to an extent) emotionally manipulative. Both the Iranian and French films obviously have a strong message which they wanted to impart to the audience. But both take a subtler, more layered approach to conveying their messages. They trust and respect the audience to see that message, without shoving it in their face.

González Iñárritu has created a piece that tries to remove the audience from the spectacle of the news footage and remind them of the personal tragedies of the victims. But his approach is so full on, that the message seemed to be that we have lost all empathy for the victims of this tragedy, so he will make us feel it (whether we like it or not).

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González Iñárritu doesn’t trust or respect the audience enough to allow them to come to their own conclusion, instead patronising us and telling us exactly how we should feel. This heavy handedness irked me.

United States of America 

Sean Penn’s film is yet another microcosm of isolation and deprivation. But it lacks the nuance and subtlety of the films from Iran and France. The protagonist is clearly a metaphor for America’s blindness to anything other that its own concerns, refusing to look out of the window even after the event, not ever asking why the flowers have bloomed again.

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The music is distracting, it seems out of place, but it does make us question what it is trying to achieve. It feels like an attempt to make the character seem more important, the hero of his own story. Another jab at America perhaps?

Penn obviously has a message to impart, but his concern about how a negative portrayal of America would be perceived, especially from the USA entry, is clear in the film’s lack of depth or innovation. Its use of narrative, photographic and editing cliches drags it down and leaves us with little to discuss once the film is over, a superficial and unsatisfying ending.

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References

Makhmalbaf, S. et al. (2002) 11’09”01 – September 11, StudioCanal

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