1Based on an original idea by French producer Alain Brigand, 11'09"01: September 11 is a collective film made up of eleven short films created by world-renowned directors such as Claude Lelouch, Youssef Chahine, Ken Loach, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Amos Gitaï and Sean Penn – to name the most famous. As the title indicates, these eleven short films reflect on the New York and Washington D.C. attacks in September 2001 and all last 11 minutes, 09 seconds and 01 frame. While this length is a direct reference to the date of the attacks, it was also imposed on the directors to ensure some equality among the films. In a statement on the DVD version of 11'09"01: September 11, Alain Brigand explains his project in the following manner:
2The eleven short films were shown for the first time at the Mostra in Venice on September 5th, 2002. They were thus made the year directly following 9/11. Being the result of a spontaneous reaction to the event, they have frequently been criticized for their lack of distance with regards to the attacks. Peter Matthews, for instance, writes:
3 As a matter of fact, the pain created by 9/11 was still so raw for most Americans that the project struggled to find distributors in the United States and the short films were only released – in selected theaters – in July 2003. To this extent, one can legitimately question the ‘reflection’ Alain Brigand refers to in his interview.
- 1 It needs to be highlighted that the term ‘jumper’ is here used for the purpose of concision, but t (...)
4However, one may agree that, in fact, the main interest of this project is precisely to constitute a unique immediate artistic response to 9/11. Even if the eleven short films are of variable quality, some approaches stand out because of their originality and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s short film is undoubtedly one of them. It is the only short film that does not have a clear narrative structure and it is certainly the most experimental one from an aesthetic perspective as the director explores the limits of the traditional dichotomy between sound and image by separating these two elements. Relying on a black screen for most of the short film, Iñárritu’s mise en scène depends on a soundtrack that mainly consists of sounds recorded around the globe on September 11th, 2001. Alison Young identifies these ‘found sound’ segments as coming from Vietnam, South Africa, Poland, Portugal, Italy, France, Germany, Canada and the United States (41). The soundtrack also includes prayers for the dead chanted by Chamulas Indians of Chiapas, Mexico, as well as an original orchestral piece. Sporadically, the black screen is disrupted by brief apparitions of 9/11 original footage. Even though, at the end of the film, one can see the Twin Towers collapsing, it is noteworthy that Iñárritu principally uses images of the ‘jumpers,’1 these men and women who were seen falling down the World Trade Center towers during the attacks.
5In an interview on the DVD version of 11'09"01: September 11, Iñárritu explains that the aim of his mise en scène was to create eleven minutes of ‘visual silence.’ Such an oxymoronic expression inevitably raises a paradox and the director was repeatedly criticized for taking the easy way out, some critics reading the film’s pervasive obscurity as a facile refusal to represent the horror of the 9/11 attacks. Matthews, for instance, states: ‘For much of the running time the screen is black, presumably to conform with the old Frankfurt School maxim that absolute horror should not be represented.’ However, it seems that there may be something else at stake in this unconventional choice of mise en scène. As the director explains, his goal was to represent more than the mere 9/11 event. He wanted to represent an experience: ‘I chose to confront people with their own images, their own fears and feelings about what had happened, allowing them to experience catharsis.’
6According to Young, watching the film does indeed constitute ‘a deeply disturbing viewing experience’: ‘My experience of watching the film in a cinema is as memorable to me as the film itself; I can well recall the sensations of physical stress that I felt while watching it’ (42). A genuinely unsettling experience, the film could very well have the potential to help the viewer reach catharsis, the emotional relief that results from an intensely dramatic experience. However, a simple destabilizing experience may not be sufficient to relieve the viewer of the 9/11 trauma and help him assimilate it. Accordingly, this article will show that, if one can legitimately question the notion of catharsis referred to by Iñárritu, his short film could potentially be read as a staging of the return of the 9/11 trauma. The study will start by examining the interaction between sight and sound to look more specifically at the traumatic momentum that underlies the film’s narrative structure. It will then assess the short film’s cathartic potential by analyzing the film’s haunting dimension and the enigmatic question that concludes it: ‘Does God’s light guide us or blind us?’
7In the interview referred to above, Iñárritu describes his project in the following way: ‘Sound, silence and music, even if they are only half of cinema, are more powerful and go beyond physical experience. Sound and music soar while the images are more banal.’ Young explains that, while she mostly focused on the short film’s images during her first viewing, she realized the importance of the soundtrack the second time around:
8Indeed, viewers are used to seeing images on a theater screen and, as Iñárritu confronts them with darkness, he forces them to adopt a new type of perception: the fact that the black screen is accompanied by sounds prevents the viewer from taking his eyes off the screen and forces him to confront this obscurity; similarly, as these sounds are accompanied by a black screen, the viewer cannot ignore them and is forced to listen to them. In other words, as image and sound are separated, their impact on the viewer is enhanced.
9But this does not mean that viewing the film does not constitute a thoroughly destabilizing experience for the viewer. The short film opens on a black screen and, at first, all the audience is left with is silence. Progressively, Mexican tribal death chants invade the soundscape. Their language is unidentifiable to most occidental viewers and as they become louder and louder, they create a buzzing, almost dizzying sound that further unsettles the viewer who is surrounded by unfamiliar elements. Two minutes into the film, a first image finally appears and the viewer can glimpse the footage of a person falling down the Twin Towers. But this vision is extremely fleeting and blurry, and with the shot being askew, the viewer misses the verticality of the towers necessary to identify the image properly. A few more focused shots soon flash on the screen, but they are still so quick that the viewer is left wondering whether he truly saw a ‘jumper.’ Young describes this viewing experience in the following way:
10Ungraspable, these flashes are reminiscent of the hallucinations that Cathy Caruth regards as characteristic of trauma: ‘In its most general definition, trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena’ (11). The traumatic nature of these flashes seems to be corroborated by their content: the ‘jumpers.’ As Tom Junod remarks, this figure remained strikingly absent from the immediate American post-9/11 discourse (at least in the days and months following the attacks) and they could be regarded as a repressed aspect of 9/11 that resurfaces in Iñárritu’s short film:
11Furthermore, the unique position in which the ‘jumpers’ found themselves during the duration of the attackssuggests that their figure could be regarded as a symbol of the 9/11 trauma. As they were forced outside the Twin Towers by the unbearable conditions inside, the ‘jumpers’ were caught sight of as a direct consequence of what was taking place in the two buildings.Since the incidents that occurred inside the World Trade Center during the attacks remain one of the only undocumented aspects of the event, these falling men and women seem to be the closest one will ever get to witnessing what took place there on that morning. To this extent, they could very well constitute one of the only possible ways to start approaching the dark side of the event, not to say the heart of the event. Contrary to the monstrous scope of the crisis and the apocalyptic panoramic footage of the blazing Twin Towers that can prove exceptionally difficult to relate to, these persons, who can be empathized with, offer the opportunity to bring the attacks back to a human scale where the event has a chance of being approached. Virtually the only human dimension to an otherwise inhuman event, they appear to be the only possible embodiment of 9/11. In addition, as the ‘jumpers’ fell from the Twin Towers instead of remaining inside to face an equally certain death amidst flames and fumes, their very ordeal encapsulated the full horror of the attacks as it stressed the inevitability of the death of the people trapped inside the World Trade Center that morning. Since this inescapable fate probably lies at the heart of the 9/11 trauma, the figure of the ‘jumpers’ could legitimately be read as incarnating this trauma.
12The short film’s composition is also reminiscent of trauma’s modus operandi. While one may agree with Young when she writes that ‘Iñárritu’s film retains a strong narrative structure,’ her statement that the film progresses ‘through the before-during-and-after of the event’ is not entirely accurate (42). The film does start with footage of the ‘jumpers’ to end with images of the collapse of the towers, but the two plane crashes are never represented on screen. Absent from the visual narrative of the event, these episodes – which triggered the 9/11 crisis – appear to be treated on a traumatic mode. Indeed, trauma by definition is an event that cannot be represented since the traumatized mind does not possess the mental framework necessary to comprehend the traumatic event:
13Surely, one may argue that the first plane crash is present in the soundtrack of the short film, but its recording follows the first footage of the ‘jumpers,’ thus disrupting the actual chronology of the event. Not following the original ‘narrative,’ Iñárritu’s representation of the event would still be relying on a traumatic style. In addition, the second crash is never heard or seen in the film. It is narrated by the voices heard on the soundtrack, but the account of the episode is far from straightforward as the accounts are repeatedly cut mid-sentence. Sentences starting with ‘another plane just flew in …,’ ‘another plane, as we were watching, …’ are enunciated, but they are never completed and the actual event is never uttered. Evoked by the reports and reactions on the soundtrack, which describe the explosion, the second crash is never represented as such and is thus enveloped in an undeniable traumatic dimension (this traumatic aspect can originally be ascribed to the fact that it is this crash that made witnesses aware that the first crash had not been an accident but an attack). Eventually, one can hear a journalist report that ‘the World Trade Center has been hit by aircraft.’
14However, even then, it is not clear which one of the two towers the broadcaster is referring to and, as soon as this statement is made, the soundscape becomes pervaded by reports in different languages. As the foreign voices overlap, the viewer cannot make sense of the information conveyed and this dissociative representation of 9/11 can be read as another translation of the event’s traumatic dimension: ‘Actual experiences can be so overwhelming that they cannot be integrated into existing mental frameworks and, instead, are dissociated, later to return intrusively as fragmented sensory or motoric experiences’ (Caruth 176).
15Resting on the traumatic 9/11 figure of the ‘jumpers’ and based on a structure uncannily similar to trauma’s modus operandi, Iñárritu’s short film appears to rely on a traumatic mode and it seems legitimate to wonder to what extent this mise en scène has the potential to perform the catharsis referred to by the director in his interview.
16The possibility of a catharsis seems to be confirmed by the impact the film has had on viewers, leaving nobody unmoved. As seen above, watching Iñárritu’s short film is an unsettling experience and, the film being prone to elicit strong emotions in the viewer, it could potentially lead to the purification of emotions characteristic of catharsis. This is to a certain extent confirmed by the end of the film when light finally overcomes the oppressive darkness and the viewer’s eyes are relieved to contemplate the newly white screen. Similarly, the soothing string melody that concludes the short film brings a long awaited harmony. As previously mentioned, for most of the film the soundscape is pervaded by overlapping voices and Chamulas death chants, which create a dizzying sensation. This haunting effect is further emphasized by the orchestral piece that accompanies the film. Starting very quietly, with prolonged notes, the music swells to an ever-greater crescendo and its insistence on the long vibrato notes as well as its underlying dissonances stress the uneasiness that inhabits the film, finding some resolution only at the end through a melodic passage. The cathartic effect brought by the short film’s orchestral piece is noteworthy in that it is in the tradition of American composer Samuel Barber, whose Adagio for Strings was played by the BBC orchestra on September 15th, 2001, in honor of those who lost their lives a few days prior. As Alexander J. Morin remarks, Barber’s music ‘rarely leaves a dry eye’ and the same could be said of Iñárritu’s elegiac soundtrack (Morin 74). Full of pathos, the concluding movement of the string music seems prone to creating a certain solace and has an undeniable cathartic momentum to it.
17The cathartic potential of Iñárritu’s short film seems further confirmed by the repetitive pattern of the flashes described above. According to Eric Santner, the return of the original traumatic experience that underlies the mechanism of trauma is none other than an attempt by the mind to recover some mastery over the trauma:
18In other words, the compulsion to repeat that follows a traumatic incident would be a first step towards an assimilation of the trauma and it thus seems legitimate to wonder to what extent the recurring appearances of the ‘jumpers’ in Inárritu’s short film could help the viewer process the 9/11 trauma and reach catharsis. Indeed, in the short film, a better understanding of the content of the flashes seems facilitated by their repetition. As more and more flashes appear on the screen, the viewer is slowly given confirmation of what he is looking at and he no longer is in a position where he can easily deny that he is facing the sight of ‘jumpers’ (which does not mean that he will not continue to deny it). The shots that used to be askew are now vertical and, as they become longer and longer, they lose their photographic quality, the awkwardness of the ‘jumpers’’ fall becoming unmistakable. The falling men and women that could previously be envisaged as in control of their destiny in the first flashes now appear to be in utter distress. As David Friend remarks regarding photographic and video representations of the ‘jumpers’:
19However, it is not because the flashes in Iñárritu’s film become clearer that they can actually be more straightforwardly comprehended and grasped by the viewer. Sincethe director separates sight and sound, he forces the viewer to modify his perception and it is possible to assume that, as the flashes are separated by long sequences of darkness, the viewer who is used to seeing images on the screen in front of him is tempted to hold on to the only images he was given, picturing in his mind the ‘jumpers’ helplessly falling down while he is confronted with the black screen. In other words, the harrowing views of the ‘jumpers,’ that can only be glimpsed at, will haunt the remainder of the short film.
20The haunting dimension of the ‘jumpers’ seems highlighted by the soundtrack that accompanies the black screen. While most of the soundscape consists of unidentifiable sounds, the soundtrack is repeatedly interrupted by a clear smacking sound. As the Naudet brothers’ documentary 9/11 has shown, this sound is extremely similar to the noise made by the ‘jumpers’ when they hit the ground. This sound is repeated several times before being heard simultaneously to the first flash of a ‘jumper,’ suggesting that its first occurrences corresponded to flashes of ‘jumpers’ that the viewer did not get to see on the screen. Later on, as the flashes become longer and longer, the smacking noise is no longer simultaneous with the appearances of the ‘jumpers’ on the screen and can be heard after the flashes (once the black screen has set in), apparently no longer indicating the ‘jumpers’’ fall itself, but its very end. As this sound seems to represent what cannot be seen, one may wonder to what extent it takes over from images because images here are defective. The fact that one of the ‘jumpers’ flashes is followed by the beep of an answering machine hints at a certain censorship. This high-pitched beep is reminiscent of the beep used to censor inappropriate language on television and could indicate that the director is censoring inappropriate images, letting the voice leaving a message on the answering machine take over. As Žižek suggests in Gaze and Voice, the voices heard in the background of Iñárritu’s short film could possibly be understood as covering for the absence of images:
21That is to say, the voices heard in Iñárritu’s short film would give ‘body to what we can never see, to what eludes our gaze’ and would emerge as ‘a placeholder for an image that does not appear’ (93).
22The relationship between voice and image is all the more interesting in that Iñárritu uses actual messages left by 9/11 victims on the answering machines of their families and friends. During the attacks, many phone calls were made by the people trapped inside the towers and while these people’s bodies were invisible to the outside world, their voices, on the other hand, were heard, making them exist virtually solely through their voices. Elaine Scarry writes: ‘the voice becomes a final source of self-extension: so long as one is speaking, the self extends out beyond the boundaries of the body, occupies a space much larger than the body’ (33). Their voices constituting one of the last remnants of their existence, the people inside the Twin Towers could potentially be read as endowed with a certain spectral dimension and Iñárritu’s use of these voices would strengthen the impression that the ‘jumpers’’ presence, which is a priori fleeting, inhabits the remainder of the short film. Haunted by the figure of the ‘jumpers,’ Iñárritu’s film appears as locked in a momentum similar to a traumatic compulsion to repeat where the repetitive pattern of the flashes could only be transcended with difficulty.
23It ought to be stressed that in terms of trauma assimilation, repetition itself is not sufficient to enable the incorporation of a traumatic experience into consciousness. Repetition is solely a symptom of traumatization. For the unconscious traumatic experience to be one day brought into consciousness, the subject needs to face this repetition and the existence of the trauma it represents. Consequently, remaining at the pathological level of repetition prevents the possibility of assimilation and the recurrence of traumatic images does not ensure a successful integration of the trauma into consciousness. On the contrary, before being fully confronted, this repetition blocks any possible extraction of information and it is the duty of the traumatized mind to confront the repetition to assimilate the trauma.
24One could possibly argue that the relief brought by the end of the short film hints at a transcendence of this repetitive momentum. But this would be forgetting the question at the end of the film: ‘Does God’s light guide us or blind us?’ Since this sentence concludes the short film, one hopes that it will help to clarify the remainder of the film and make sense of the rest of Iñárritu’s unsettling mise en scène. As seen above, the oppressing black screen does lighten up to give way to a white screen and the orchestral music, which had been building up tension throughout the film, has finally found harmony. So, it seems legitimate to expect that the sentence appearing on the screen will bring the same kind of resolution. However, the sentence first appears in Arabic, making it incomprehensible for most occidental viewers, and its translation leaves one similarly puzzled: where the viewer expects to find a key to the short film’s meaning, he is left with a question, not an answer. Certainly, there are only two possible answers to this question: either God’s light guides us or blinds us. But, in view of the 9/11 events, the two choices put forward by the concluding question seem impossible to consider. Answering that God guides us would echo the role traditionally ascribed to religion, but it would to a certain extent justify the terrorists’ acts, which seems unacceptable in view of the attacks’ atrocities. On the contrary, answering that God blinds us would explain how such a monstrous act could be conducted in God’s name. Iñárritu shows that he favors this answer when he declares that:
25However, answering that God blinds us would also imply that it is pointless to turn towards religion to find solace after the attacks and a godless universe would be a rather bleak prospect for many. In other words, finding an answer to the film’s final question may not be as easy as suggested by Iñárritu’s statement. The answer would have to be qualified to have a chance of becoming acceptable. A middle ground would have to be found between the two options offered by the concluding question. But the film mostly relies on a black and white color scheme and shades of gray are scant: they only appear during the flashes that sporadically pierce through the screen. So, rather than offering an answer, the last sentence would prompt the viewer to go back to the flashes to find an answer to the film’s meaning. This revolving impetus seems further enhanced by the symbolic dimension of the ‘jumpers’ that can be seen in these very flashes. As the director explains in the DVD interview, he uses this figure ‘as a metaphorical representation of Icarus.’ As Icarus burnt his wings when he flew too close to the sun, the myth evoked by the flashes would only send the viewer back to the question asked at the end of the short film: ‘Does God’s light guide us or blind us?’
26Comparing the men and women seen falling from the World Trade Center to Icarus, Lucifer or Adam cannot be avoided. As Eleanor Kaufman observes, the idea of a man falling from the sky inevitably brings to mind such figures:
27Still, such an analysis can quickly prove excessive with regards to 9/11, if not dangerous, since likening the ‘jumpers’ to these mythological and biblical figures can easily lead to the conclusion that the attacks were a godly punishment, a highly subjective type of interpretation. Iñárritu acknowledges this problem when he links the concluding question to the Manicheism that pervaded the political discourses surrounding 9/11:
28While the director recognizes that looking at the attacks from a religious perspective is a ‘subjective’ stance, it is noteworthy that he actually expresses a clear-cut opinion when he states that religious discourse tends to blind people rather than enlighten them. That is to say that the short film’s closing question would be purely rhetorical: it would revolve around itself, sending the viewer back to the darkness he had just emerged from. Indeed, even though the white screen that ends the film is a relief for the eyes, one should not forget that the concluding question is eventually erased by a piercing light that invades the screen. Dazzled and listening to the same Chamulas chants that opened the short film, Iñárritu’s viewer finds himself in a position similar to the one he was in at the beginning of the film, the film’s repetitive pattern being tightly locked, virtually impossible to transcend.
29To conclude, since the modus operandi that underlies Iñárritu’s short film appears to rest on a dynamic similar to that of a traumatic compulsion to repeat, his film could legitimately be read as a staging of the return of the original 9/11 trauma. Nevertheless, it would probably be excessive to assume that this mise en scène can perform a true catharsis. In theory, the viewer could very well face the compulsion to repeat proposed by the director to process his own 9/11 trauma. However, this confrontation may prove insufficient since watching the film cannot be compared to the actual 9/11 experience. The film remains a simulation and the film’s repetitive pattern cannot be regarded as a true repetition compulsion: it is only its representation. While the images of the ‘jumpers’ used by Iñárritu may hold some of 9/11’s traumatic dimension, their repetition on the screen is imposed on the viewer and is not the product of his own unconscious. That is to say that even if one can consider that Iñárritu’s short film is a rather successful rendition of the return of the 9/11 trauma, it remains a simple staging of this phenomenon and it will never be sufficient to enable the catharsis evoked by the director in his interview.
30Some resolution may nevertheless be found in Iñárritu’s use of the images of the ‘jumpers.’ As the film’s mise en scène is based on an absence of images to sporadically let footage of the ‘jumpers’ seep through, it detaches itself from the ubiquitous footage of the blazing World Trade Center that has come to represent 9/11 in the collective mind. Offering a perspective on the attacks that works in a way reverse to the traditional representation of the event, Iñárritu’s film could very well have the potential to reach a deeper level of the 9/11 trauma. To this extent, his short film may possibly constitute a further step towards the assimilation of this trauma for certain viewers.