September 11, 2006

I remember vividly the night of the attacks. Damien and I were watching the late night news when, all of a sudden newsreader, Sandra Sulley, with an odd and confused look on her face, announced they were crossing immediately to CNN. Over the next few hours, we sat and watched, drank some wine, and for just a brief moment, as the attacks spread beyond the Twin Towers, felt a moment of fear, suspecting an attack on inner-city Sydney couldn’t be that far away.

Five years later, it’s September 12 here in Australia, and coverage of September 11 is almost over. It’s been going on for a week now, and I’ve watched a fair deal of it, especially over the last twenty four hours with pretty shitty weather here in Sydney making television watching an attractive holiday alternative.

And there’s been a lot to choose from: everything from the conspiracy theory film, Loose Change (which they’ve just shown on the History Channel), through to the bloke singing “God Bless America” on Fox News just a short while ago.

My orgy of September 11 viewing, however, began last night with Al Gore, the former Vice President (and would be President) appearing on Denton’s Enough Rope. Gore is in Australia to promote his film, highlighting the potential dangers associated with global warming.

In a softly-softly manner, Gore urged Australia to sign to Kyoto Protocol.

AL GORE: Australia and the United States are the ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ of the global community on the climate crisis. If Bonnie goes straight and reforms, then Clyde is out there isolated and would feel a lot of pressure to change. If Australia changed its policy, it would put enormous pressure on the US to change.

ANDREW DENTON: Seriously?

AL GORE: Seriously.

I didn’t stay around to see whether or not he would have much to say about the fifth anniversary, as I was anxious to turn over to watch Fahrenheit 9/11, the Michael Moore film released a couple of years ago. I’m not sure why, but I hadn’t seen the film at the time, though it was interesting to see it with a degree of hindsight.

In the opening sequence to the film, once again, we see Al Gore adopting a softly-softly approach as the battle for Presidential votes in Florida is played out in the courts. As one by one, a number of black female politicians appear before him, seeking support for the disenfranchised black American voters of Florida, Gore goes about his duty, informing them that without Senate support there is nothing he can do, even though he would stand to benefit. He quietly goes about his duties, “doing the right thing”, thereby re-inforcing a theme of Moore’s film.

Without seeking to oversimply the film’s central theme, it seems to me Moore’s argument is that while America’s elite have benefited both financially and politically from September 11 and the Iraq War, ordinary Americans haven’t because they’ve “done the right thing”. In arguing the point, the film portrays the human face of lower and working class Americans who’ve joined the military (and who’ve died) in support of a war he argues didn’t need to happen.

As a film-maker, Moore makes some interesting choices. For example, I really respected his decision not to show the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre. I also think he seeks to treat all of the people he interviews with respect. But sometimes he labours the point and sometimes his “stunts” seem a little disingenous. For example, the lengthy opening sequence with politicians being made up for the cameras seeks to make a point that most would take as a given. And, while I thought his decision to approach politicians asking them if their children would be willing to serve in Iraq was both effective and significant, I thought a sequence where he drove around in an ice-cream truck reading out the Patriot Act (with shades of his earlier television series “The Awful Truth) bordered on the under-graduate.

I have similar criticisms of “Loose Change”, a film by Dylan Avery which seeks to highlight logical and factual inconsistencies in the official version of events surrounding the September 11 attacks. In the midst of some good material, there’s a certain undergraduate tone in the narration, and a certain naivety in the conclusions reached.

For example, I thought the film clearly demonstrates – through video footage and through anecdotal evidence – a series of explosions in addition to the plane crashes, helped bring down the World Trade Centre towers. However, the conclusion that, because the official records don’t record the explosions as contributing, means the United States Government was somehow involved doesn’t stand up to the same level of critical thought the film-maker demands in others. Not once, does Avery, for example, entertain the idea there might have been a number of suicide bombers within the World Trade Centre.

As with “Fahrenheit 9/11”, “Loose Change 2” is best where it seeks to portray the ideas an views of ordinary Americans. Both films, perhaps, would have benefited by doing away with the narrator, just letting the images and people speak for themselves.

Coverage on stations like Sky, CNN, Fox and BBC World has been patchy. On the American stations, much of the debate has centred around whether or not enough had been done (before and after September 11) to track down Osama bin Laden, with the conclusion being “probably not”. There’s also been a fair amount of discussion about how well the war in Iraq has been going, with the general conclusion being “not as well as it should be”.

I know a few people who have, in my view, cynically dismissed this anniversary as unnecessary navel gaving, whereas I think it’s a significant anniversary of a major world event that requires careful re-consideration. Unfortunately, none of the coverage I’ve seen so far has achieved that. There’s been a lot of it, but nothing particularly profound.

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