A Little Peace 

The Underground Zero project -- one of the most important documentaries of the year -- comes to the Fine Arts

If you're like a lot of people, you're probably sick of hearing about 9/11. Yet the pervasive sense of dread -- and wonder -- refuses to go away. The only major attack by a foreign power on the United States in modern times is one of the biggest news stories of our lifetimes. It will take a long time for Americans to sort it all out. The emotional responses are still bubbling up.

Two Bay Area filmmakers, Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi, were among the many artists who responded to the events of 9/11. A week after the attack, they sent out a call to some 150 fellow filmmakers to record their impressions of 9/11 on tape or film. They queried noncommercial media artists like themselves, makers of experimental films and documentaries. The result is a two-part collection of shorts by 31 creators (including Rosenblatt and Zahedi), Underground Zero (76 minutes total running time) and Underground Zero II (78 min.).

For the most part, these artistically minded witnesses avoided the clichéd images we've grown so weary of seeing on TV news since 9/11. There are almost no American flags. There's one firefighter in the 31 films, but he's having fun on a sunny, uneventful day. No politicians. No evil masterminds. Scant footage of the World Trade Center towers and panic in the streets. Instead, there are lots of shots of children, of New York streets, of ordinary people in a reflective mood, of clouds and trees. The traumatic events are glimpsed obliquely. The tone is often somber, but as each of the well-paced segments progresses (Rosenblatt and Zahedi's editing together of the shorts is masterful) there is also a slowly rising tide of hope -- not exactly the same sentimental, small-townish kind we might see in a Frank Capra movie, but not so very far from that in the end. One gets the impression that these artists, for all their nonconformism, are after all Americans -- with a stubborn optimism that even such horrendous acts can't quite touch.

Haunting is the word for Robert Edwards' The Voice of the Prophet, an interview with retired Colonel Cyril "Rick" Rescorla, a veteran of both the British and US armies, seen sitting in his World Trade Center office in 1998, calmly weighing the motives of anti-American terrorists (who, he says, hate us with good reason) and warning us of the coming storm. At the end of the interview, a title tells us he died at the WTC on 9/11. In Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Isaiah's Rap, a fourteen-year-old TriBeCa kid named Isaiah Gage shows us the view from his rooftop -- the hole in the skyline where the WTC used to be -- and then launches into a rap about war and peace. Untitled by Ira Sachs is particularly unnerving: a montage of snapshots and portraits of 9/11 victims with absolutely no soundtrack, a silent procession of the dead. Filmmaker Paul Harrill goes to a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks -- seen fashioning a sand mandala in Tennessee -- for words of wisdom on the horror of 9/11. They merely giggle in that maddening Tibetan-monk way and inform him that the answer cannot be spoken.

Spiritualism of all sorts is evident in the two collections. It seems to be the underground filmmakers' amulet, in the same way that jingoism is for network and cable news. Instead of waving the flag or resorting to easy pathos, many of the Underground Zero commentators reach deep into the collective consciousness, seeking solace in dreams of peace. Rosenblatt's Prayer is the most sublime example of this supplicating approach to the shock of 9/11. To the beckoning strains of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, we see some typically wonderful Rosenblatt library shots of long-ago Muslims kneeling to pray, followed by '50s-era schoolkids earnestly mouthing prayers. That's all there is, and that's the only thing we need to see. Rosenblatt, maker of such revelations as The Smell of Burning Ants, Human Remains, and King of the Jews, has a way of slicing unerringly into the emotional core of his subject (all his films are about feelings and perceptions) using just the right image keyed to the perfect music.

And then there's the "We're all in this together so what do we do next?" approach. Caveh Zahedi wanted to "lower the vibrational frequency" of the 9/11 aftermath, so he asked the students in his documentary film class at the San Francisco Art Institute to go along with his touchy-feely, improvisatory way of dealing with it. One student balked -- not only balked, but rebelled, effectively hijacking the class and the film Zahedi made of it, The World is a Classroom. At first glance, it's an annoying film about annoying people. But let it sink in a while. The sly Zahedi delivers a treatise on world politics disguised as the cinema-verité record of a classroom tiff.

All the above are in Underground Zero, part one. UZ II has a slightly different feel. In a recent conversation, Rosenblatt admitted that he's worried about how well the two halves fit together. "The second part is more experimental," he says. True, but if seen on the same day in the same frame of mind, the two parts match up well. UZ II is even less Dan-Rather-ish. Mark Street's Brooklyn Promenade makes a family's day in the park, with kids bouncing on a fire truck, seem ominous merely by juxtaposing loaded motifs. Filmmaker Street writes: "I did my best to shield my kids from the events of 9/11. ... But of course the horror was percolating in them, too, despite my best efforts."

Brooklyn turns out to be one of the prime vantage points for considering the disaster. Cathy Cook constructs an interlocking series of wide-angle digital shots of her street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, panning from the two Union Gas towers at one end to the World Trade Center towers in the distance, at the other. Back and forth, and suddenly they're not there any more. She calls her film Both Towers Have Fallen. Just as eerie is Cathy Crane and Sarah Lewison's Meal, which takes us to a Pizza Hut in Maine, the scene of terrorist Muhammad Atta's last meal. Thad Povey and the Scratch Film Junkies, perennial Fine Arts Cinema favorites, contribute Drink from the River, a murky cinematic poem of longing and nostalgia, with deep-blue-colored emulsion overlaying old newsreels and home movies, mostly about New York. "Looking for some solace after the attacks," Povey tells us in the press notes, "I remembered Lethe, the underworld's river of forgetfulness from whose waters souls are required to drink." The Underground Zero filmmakers, of course, are cursed with having to remember.

Underground Zero, aka Part One, screens eight days at the Fine Arts Cinema beginning Friday, May 10 and running through Friday, May 17. In an example of the curious brand of cobilling that has made the Fine Arts unique, it plays as a double feature with Kevin Epps' Straight Outta Hunters Point, a documentary on youth gang violence in San Francisco. The only time to see Underground Zero II at the Fine Arts is on Saturday and Sunday, May 11 and 12, when it will show at 5:30 p.m. -- before Part One. Ideally, the two parts should be shown in order. Producer/filmmaker Rosenblatt reports that HBO may be picking up the two UZs for broadcast, but in the meantime, maybe the Fine Arts can be prevailed upon to reverse the screening order on those days, in order to see one of the most important documentaries of the year in its proper sequence. Regardless, these excursions into the preoccupied national psyche are not to be missed.


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