One of the pleasures of a regular regimen of video watching is the unexpected tributaries and whirlpools that gather around commonalities which might otherwise go unnoticed. This last week, for example, I watched the Region 2 DVD of 11’09″01 as well as the Criterion Collection’s latest DVD releases, Alain Resnais‘ Night and Fog (1955) and Hiroshima mon amour (1959). In general terms, these films address three significant human tragedies: the killing of US civilians in New York and Washington, the Nazi extermination of Jewish civilians, and the US atomic bombing of Japanese civilians. Watching all three films, I couldn’t help but to reflect on how we view tragedies of unspeakable horror through cinematic means.
11’09″01 is a compilation of eleven short films lasting 11 minutes, 9 seconds, and 1 frame regarding the tragic US events of that date, directed by filmmakers from around the globe. If you haven’t heard of it, you probably live in America, where distributors refused to release the film after it debuted worldwide on September 11, 2002. There were suggestions that the film was somehow “anti-American,” but having now seen all eleven episodes, I can honestly say that I never saw any trace of anti-Americanism, although several films do choose to equate the tragedy with their own national suffering (some of which is a result of US aggression), which seems to me like a perfectly reasonable and honest response.
As a whole, the short films are scattershot and not altogether artistically successful, nor do they provide “answers” or clarify “the issues,” if that were even possible. But they do offer diverse cinematic reflections on the event. As such, it’s unfortunate the film never received distribution in the US because if nothing else, its ambition and varied perspectives surely offers something network broadcasting memorials do not.
Of the eleven pieces, my two favorites are probably the first and last, respectively: Samira Makhmalbaf‘s piece about an Iranian schoolteacher’s efforts to convey the realities of the WTC and its destruction to her distracted, rural students, and Shohei Imamura‘s allegorical piece about a war veteran who believes he’s literally a snake. (Only fans of the latter filmmaker could possibly imagine what this might look like.) I appreciated the attention to communication and crosscultural meaning in the episode by Makhmalbaf (an extraordinary 23-year-old Iranian filmmaker whose first three movies have already earned her acclaim) and the enticing abstractions by Imamura (an extraordinary 77-year-old Japanese filmmaker whose career dates back to the 1950s). At the same time, I question my preferences knowing that these films are the most detached and politically disengaged of the whole series. Is it possible to explicitly represent the tragedy and its real-world implications with any degree of nuance?
Abstraction is a key component of Resnais’ films as well, although he certainly doesn’t shy away from harrowing footage. Made during a time when the horrors of the war were still relatively fresh and in many ways culturally unspeakable, Resnais created Night and Fog–a 31-minute essay film that many people consider to be the greatest film about the Holocaust (sans 1985′s 566-minute Shoah, which is getting a North American DVD release on August 19). Resnais juxtaposes increasingly horrifying archival footage intercut with present day views of the empty extermination camps. To this he adds Hanns Eisler’s peaceful, experimental score as counterpoint and a monotone narration written by camp survivor Jean Cayrol which oscillates between detailed description and philosophical inquiry. The result is a meditation on tragic horror and human memory, a strikingly coherent essay that is factual and poetic.
Subsequently, Resnais was asked to make a documentary about the atomic bomb and Hiroshima, and though he initially declined because of his conviction that the event could not be adequately represented, he chose to make his first fictional film–a love story–with Hiroshima as the setting and its tragedy as backdrop. Boldly combining fact and fiction, the first fifteen minutes of Hiroshima mon amour are largely a documentary about the effects of the bomb, which emotionally connects the event with the sordid romantic history of the protagonist, a French woman having an affair with a Japanese man. If this sounds complex, it is. But through Resnais’ remarkably fluid editing, the various elements converge to form an atmospheric treatise on love, memory, international relations, and personal suffering. A critical sensation when it was first released, Hiroshima mon amour is a classic work of modernism that succeeds in addressing a specific human tragedy and extrapolating it toward universal concerns, without minimizing either reality.