Not long after 9/11, a French producer named Alain Brigand asked 11 very different directors from across the world to make short films about the catastrophe. Some of Brigand's choices were real head-scratchers: No matter how great Sean Penn can be as an actor, as a director he has too leaden a touch for a subject so heavily freighted. But other choices seemed ideal, notably Japan's Shohei Imamura, by far the greatest filmmaker in the lineup and an artist who's made a brilliant career of rolling in the muck of the human condition.
It's no surprise that Imamura has directed the best film in "September 11," which is doubtless why the producer saved it for last. Written by Daisuke Tengan, one of Imamura's sons and a frequent screenwriter partner, the untitled short takes the form of a parable. Toward the end of the Second World War, a soldier (Tomorrow Taguchi) has abandoned his human self to behave like a snake. Dressed in his army fatigues, the snake-man wordlessly slithers along the dirt, arms tucked in and tongue flickering, confounding, then terrifying his family. He riles the locals by gobbling their livestock (the snake-man's new diet makes for a typically funny-grotesque Imamura shock), but as an elder points out, the snake-man was once an imperial soldier.
A sliver of Imamura greatness, the film glides along as sorrowfully as the snake-man, only to end with an angry reverberating jolt. The director was 18 when Japan's own holy war ended, and though this short work resides in the realm of metaphor, it's also fiercely personal. Set against a specific historical backdrop, it transcends its time to say something universally truthful about fanaticism.
If only the rest of the films in "September 11" were anywhere as good or thoughtful. There are some very fine directors represented here -- notably Britain's Ken Loach, Iran's Samira Makhmalbaf, Burkina Faso's Idrissa Ouedraogo and Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu -- but none has fully risen to the full measure of their talent.
Part of the problem is the format. In many respects, short films are a lot tougher to make than features -- or at least make good -- because they often rely on radical condensation. One reason Imamura's film works is that it doesn't directly refer to 9/11, which means he neither reduces the disaster to the purely personal (as does France's Claude Lelouch's indulgent love story) nor tries to cram it into some political context. Inarritu's film, by contrast, is a wretched failure precisely because it references 9/11 too directly. His "experimental" short uses images of people falling from one of the towers in an apparent attempt to honor the dead, but the film achieves exactly the reverse effect. As offensive as it is cretinous, it doesn't just aestheticize human suffering, it turns these poor souls into kitsch.
Most of the rest of the filmmakers try for a more directly political approach, which is unsurprisingly hard to pull off in 11 minutes. Makhmalbaf comes closest to hitting the mark with a shard of a story about a young Iranian teacher trying to coax her restless and very young Afghan students into a minute of silence. The film has a plaintive elegiac tone -- the teacher unmistakably feels for the dead, as does the woman behind the camera -- while also gracefully scoring a trenchant political point. When the teacher pulls them away for school and the abbreviated memorial, most of these very small children are making mud bricks by hand. Refugees, they are helping build shelters that their elders desperately hope will protect them from the American bombs they fear.
Ouedraogo's film also uses children to make some grindingly obvious points about how Africans suffer their share of tragedy. Four schoolboys, hearing about the multimillion-dollar bounty for Osama bin Laden, try to capture him (or at least a look-alike). One boy wants to pay for his sick mother's medicine, and because they're unusually civic-minded children, they all dream about using the money to alleviate the suffering of those ravaged by malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS -- you get the point. In the U.S., dogs and cats get more attention than African children and likely benefit from more of our dollars. That's grotesque, but it's unclear what Ouedraogo would like us -- and not just American audiences -- to do. Throw our bums out? Write some checks? Kill ourselves for the sins of our countries?