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9/11, a movie: Are we ready?

A TV docudrama steps on sensitive terrain with a story that peers into the minds of killers.

September 06, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — At first, it sounds almost like a joke: a movie to "humanize" the 9/11 mass murderers?

But a closely researched television docudrama broadcast Thursday night by Britain's Channel 4, although disturbing to watch, gives viewers an insight into the minds and motives of three of the otherwise unremarkable individuals who carried out the attack.

"The Hamburg Cell," written by Ronan Bennett and Alice Perman and cast with an ensemble of unknown actors, tells the story of the evolution of the terrorists in the five years leading up to the 2001 attacks. The $6-million film is screening this weekend at the Venice Film Festival, and the initially chilly reception from potential U.S. distributors has warmed. David Aukin, one of the movie's two executive producers, says now there is "quite a lot of interest from American cable networks and even [movie] distributors," so it is likely "Hamburg" will eventually make its way to the States.

Much of the docudrama's focus is on well-off Lebanese student Ziad Jarrah (Karim Saleh). Educated at Catholic schools, he evolves from an ordinary Muslim-in-name-only student in Germany to a committed Al Qaeda jihadist given the assignment of crashing United Airlines Flight 93 into the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 11.

His mentor is the attack's coordinator, Ramzi bin al Shibh (Omar Berdouni), who comes across as a calm talent-spotter for the Al Qaeda cell made up of students and Muslim emigres in Hamburg, Germany.

The cell's most hard-core member is Mohamed Atta (Kamel), the pilot of the plane that flew into the first World Trade Center tower. Here he's depicted as a small, sullen and sanctimonious man, hungry for the attention and respect of his middle-class Egyptian father.

Perhaps the most intriguing character in the film is Aysel (Agni Tsangaridou), Jarrah's Turkish girlfriend, who opposes his embrace of militant Islam and, in the months before Sept. 11, accepts his explanation that he has abandoned his dream of martyrdom in order to live and love her.

Was she duped, or did she willingly blind herself to the truth? Could she, or any of the other acquaintances and relatives of the hijackers, have alerted authorities in time and caused the conspiracy to fail, saving the lives of 3,000 people and the world a wealth of anguish since?

More than two years ago, Channel 4 commissioned the Mentorn production company, which has offices here and in Santa Monica, to tell the story of the hijackers, intending to make the first major television dramatization of the plot that "changed the course of the 21st century." But executives soon became aware that it would not be easy to make a movie that did not offend viewers or scare off U.S. distributors.

Initial interest in the project from potential buyers in the United States waned as it went "further up the food chain," Aukin said.

"We knew it was a difficult a story to tell," he said. "We also knew it would be difficult for us to get it right because when we took the decision to tell the story from the point of view of the terrorists, we were very aware that we mustn't cross the line in creating sympathy for the guys."

The writers, Bennett and Perman, and the director, Antonia Bird, did not flinch from reflecting the mind-set of the cell's members. The audience sees and hears the men decrying the sexually infused, materialistic Western society in which they chose to live (and by which they were sometimes seduced).

It also captures a glimmer of their anger at meetings and discussions in which they wallow in resentment of Israel, Jews and the United States for what they view as the plight of Muslims under attack around the world.

The only remedy, their spiritual leaders tell them earnestly, is jihad -- armed attacks against the West -- and after years of being drawn in by the exhortations of their imams and one another, the men are only too willing to volunteer for what they know will be a suicide mission.

"There will be people who say you can't humanize these people because they are so beyond the pale," said Peter Dale, the head of documentaries at Channel 4, speaking in Britain's Independent newspaper. "The clear, level stare at these people is really essential."

"These guys have understandably been demonized as a group of psychopaths," Aukin said, "but the shocking thing is if you had met then, they were a regular bunch of guys and you would have no inkling of what they were going to do. That is what is so scary. These are ordinary people at one level."

Jarrah, for instance, "is a weak character swayed by his group," he said. "It counters one's expectations of what a ruthless terrorist might be like."

The decision to focus on Jarrah, whose plane crashed in Pennsylvania after its passengers rose up against the hijackers, was because "he truly was a conflicted character and conflict makes for interesting drama, generally."

With the passage of time since the 2001 attacks, Aukin believes people are ready to see the film. Although there is no comparison between the two projects, Aukin said, the surprise success of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" has "sort of changed the landscape and opened people's minds that other sorts of films might work" commercially.

Perman said she and Bennett "don't purport to have all the answers," but "we hope that we have contributed to the debate, the dialogue, to understand these men as human beings.... We should want to know more about these men and what motivates them to do something so atrocious."

To avoid engendering sympathy, they and director Bird strove for "a cool detachment from the characters. We are observers, standing back and looking in," Perman said.

"I am sure it will be unsettling to many in the audience. Listening to acute anti-Semitism or the incitement to mass murder is not easy viewing."

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