TORONTO - Mira Nair, an Indian-born movie director, lives in New York City. Last year on Sept. 11, she was here at the Toronto International Film Festival with her hit family drama, Monsoon Wedding. It was set to premiere that night, and for the party, 200 dancers and two elephants were hired. "It was all kind of ridiculous," she said. Then the terrorist attacks happened, and she sat in the hotel bar the rest of the day, watching television, speechless. Twelve months later she returned with words.
On Wednesday, the festival, which ends tomorrow - a festival notorious for not actually having any downtime built into its 10 days -paused for a while, turned somber, and premiered the first two major films to address Sept. 11, one a mixed bag, the other a bona fide winner. Nair was part of the mixed bag, one of 11 filmmakers who made a short film for French producer Alain Brigand. The idea was clever.
Each filmmaker had carte blanche for their approach and politics. But they could only submit a film that was 11 minutes, 9 seconds, and one frame long. The result is 11'09''01, and Brigand told me he doesn't expect U.S. distribution for some time.
When it began, the audience held its breath, the slightest clearing of a throat drawing glares. Then a strange thing happened. The audience laughed. The first short, a thoughtful, warm film by Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf, found a group of Iranian schoolchildren trying to observe a moment of silence. Their teacher asks if they know what happened, and they can only guess: Two people fell down a well? No, wait, was someone's aunt buried up to her neck and stoned or something?
British director Ken Loach (Riff Raff) weighed in with a history lesson: A U.S.-led coup overthrew the Chilean government, ironically enough, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 1970. Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanovic (No Man's Land) created solidarity between the date and the Sept. 11 massacre at Srebrnica. Nair dramatized the story of a New York Muslim killed in the attacks, but wanted as a terrorist.
Sean Penn directed Ernest Borgnine in a touching portrait of a man living in the shadows of the twin towers, while Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros) delivered a black screen, augmented by the rising and falling clamor of actual chaos from the New York City attacks. As for news reports that the film by Egypt's Youssef Chahine was anti-American - his short, which attempts to explain how terrorists rationalize murdering innocent civilians, isn't offensive so much as simply lousy filmmaking.
The idea for 11'09''01 came to Brigand on Sept. 12. He stood in his apartment, stared at a flat map of the world, and was inspired. He insists the film isn't political, "only a desire to understand how people felt all over the planet. I think when we are given all these terrible images, the only way to respond is with other images."
Funny he should say that, because the other 9/11-themed film that debuted here, The Guys, an adaptation of Anne Nelson's Off-Broadway hit, feels just the opposite.
In it Sigourney Weaver plays a writer who helps a fire captain (Anthony LaPaglia) write eulogies for the eight men he lost. "What we don't need is words," she spits out on the narration. The film is more of a natural heart-tugger, simpler, than the omnibus of ideas pouring from 11'09"01, but it's so well-written and acted - LaPaglia does real justice to a tricky role - that there's nothing maudlin or phony about it.
Again, what you don't expect to surface shows up in spades: humor. Her intellectual skills are not as practical as, say, a good welder when it comes to rubble, Weaver's character is astonished to provide an invaluable service. She wonders aloud: "When was the last time you heard someone needed a writer?"
Day seven. People are leaving the festival early. You hear them talking on cell phones, trying to arrange last-minute flights to New York. A big complaint is how front-loaded the first half of the festival is this year, with many of the most-anticipated films shown before Sept. 11 because studios and distributors, worried about a mass exodus, insisted on it.
This resulted in at least one unfortunate celebrity hissy fit: Roger Ebert has emerged as the festival's premier whiner when he threw a tantrum outside a press screening after being shut out of the packed theater. Then he wrote a story for the Chicago Sun-Times about the trouble with the film festival's press screening policies.
Anyway, along Bloor Street, newspaper headlines shout about George Bush and Iraq, and Canada's reaction, and it's getting hard to get through an interview without Iraq coming up - in general, the actors and directors are weary of military action.
John Cusack is in town promoting Max, his drama about Hitler's art teacher. He talks in his familiar rush of words, every sentence landing with a slightly defensive matter-of-factness. "No one really buys that 'axis of evil'' stuff," he says. "It's too simplistic. If I want to understand the terrorism situation I can't listen to that. I read [New York Times columnist] Thomas Friedman."
Cusak makes more sense than Michael Moore, whose entertaining documentary about gun violence, Bowling For Columbine, somewhat simplistically tosses around images of 9/11.
One year later, watching The Guys and 11'09''01, what becomes apparent is not how movies are dealing with the terrorist attacks. You notice instead how movies look through its prism - and which movies were obviously shot more than a year ago.
Tuesday night, Phone Booth premiered. It's the story of a sleazy New York City publicist who picks up a pay phone and is told by a voice on the other end that if he hangs up he'll be shot. Just before this happens, the guy, played by Colin Firth, declares this is "the city where nobody does nothing for nobody." This is one night before The Guys premieres in the same theater.