Holding up the mirror
If minorities don't tell their own stories, no one will, says Mira Nair, one of 11 directors who looks back on September 11
Arthur J Pais in Toronto
The oppressive thing is having the one line that is always given by the Western media," asserted Mira Nair at a press conference on September 11 to introduce the controversial film 11'09"01.
Her view was enthusiastically backed by Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai who complained that Americans do not want other people to talk about this tragedy "in terms other than their own". Gitai said: "They want resources from the Middle East, but not our opinion. It will give victory to the terrorists if the United States tells the only version of this story."
The film, produced by the French company Studio Canal, which is allied with Universal Pictures, has been sold to about 18 countries. Yet, neither Universal nor its art division Focus has shown the inclination to buy it for America.
Many American journalists said they were appalled the film had so much anti-American sentiments, especially the segments from British and Egyptian filmmakers.
Compared to a few segments in the film that are utterly critical of the American involvement abroad that has led to the death of thousands over the decades, Nair's segment seems benign.
But it too questions some of the assumptions American authorities, media, and the public have made about the minorities, especially Muslims, after September 11.
"It is important that we tell the stories about ourselves," Nair said at the Toronto International Film Festival. "If [we] minorities don't tell our own stories, nobody will." Her segment tells the story of a Pakistani-American family in New York whose son goes missing on September 11 and is suspected of being connected with the terrorists.
The media and officials come to a conclusion too soon. Eventually, it transpires that the young man, who was trained as a paramedic, died helping the victims of the terrorist attacks.
Nair came back to the TIFF not only to bury the anguish and trauma she had felt on the black day, but also with a short film that she felt would make people think about the futility of suspicion and ill-will towards the minorities.
Last year, her film Monsoon Wedding had just been screened at the TIFF when news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon shocked the world. Her press conference was cancelled, along with many other events scheduled that day.
"I've always known truth is stranger than fiction," she said. Even then, she was shocked to know that a Muslim family that regarded itself as American came under intense suspicion suddenly.
Nair knows the film has not found a distributor in America. Some people suspect that it is due to some of its segments, for instance the one by acclaimed British director Ken Loach that narrates the story of a Chilean exile. The man, now living in London, writes an open letter to the bereaved families in America, while recounting another September 11, another Tuesday three decades ago, when an America-inspired coup destroyed the elected government of Socialist Salvadore Allende and lead to the death of more than 30,000 people.
Loach was not at the conference. Also absent was Youssef Chahine, whose short segment intensely questions the American role in the deaths of thousands in Lebanon, Palestine, and Vietnam.
Nair enthusiastically disagreed with those who called the film anti-American. "It is too simplistic to call the film anti-American," she told the media in Toronto. "It is important to remind Americans of how others see them."
She is also aware that films such as The Trials of Henry Kissinger, which are provocatively against American interference in other countries, have been released in America by small but committed distributors.
As a filmmaker who has made such movies as Mississippi Masala and The Perez Family about interaction among various communities in the US, Nair says her 9/11 film segment too is meant to raise consciousness of a multicultural America.
The aftermath of 9/11 has shown to many South Asians, she said, that people continue to be judged by the colour of their skin. Now they can understand, she continued, what African Americans have been feeling for decades. Besides, healing among the communities is imperative.
What happened on September 11 can never be undone. At the same time, she hastened to add, there is no need for more schisms and bitterness.
The producers of 11'09"01 are not that sure if healing and a healthy debate will come about easily. Yet, they are not completely pessimistic.
"Americans are still mourning," said Nicolas Mauvernay, one of the producers. "It will be some time before the film is released there."