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‘Underground Zero’ expands America’s consciousness of the 9/11 tragedy

By Peter Crimmins, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday May 10, 2002

Millions of moviegoers across the country cued up last weekend to see Spiderman crawl up buildings and swing through New York City on a strand of webbing. What they did not see, what the filmmakers took great pains to make sure they did not see, was the World Trade Center. Eight months after the Twin Towers fell, who wants to see them? Last fall the media was flooded with horrific images of our nation under terrorist siege; now director Sam Raimi and the studio powers-that-be can hardly be blamed for editing footage of the NYC skyline out of their light entertainment. 

Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi, however, are asking viewers to re-experience the arc of the national grieving process in their compendium of short films, plotting the initial shock and subsequent personal, spiritual, and political aftermath. 

Two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, San Francisco-based filmmakers Rosenblatt and Zahedi put a call out to experimental filmmakers across the country to create a one- to 10-minute film or video. The artists’ reactions range from crippling sadness to anger and bewilderment to blame, and an array of associated emotions. Rosenblatt and Zahedi compiled select entries into “Underground Zero,” two 70-minute programs, both of which will be screened for a week-long run at the Fine Arts Cinema in Berkeley beginning Friday May 10. 

When major motion picture companies were fretting about how to remove the Twin Towers from their movies, Rosenblatt and Zahedi were preparing to look at them straight-on, this time without the hysteria of news media. “Underground Zero” is not without its own agenda – both Rosenblatt and Zahedi said they have not seen an acknowledgment of America’s responsibility for the attacks in its involvement in foreign countries – and the programs express a need to complicate patriotism and reclaim the power of images. 

“I think after Sept. 11 firemen, fire trucks, policemen, everything has taken on new meaning,” said Rosenblatt in his San Francisco living room. Innocent images of a young child’s birthday party in a park is infected with dread when the partygoers get a tour of a fire engine. The context of Dan Weir’s “Fear Itself” is enough to render the fire engine an icon of martyrdom, and the soundtrack of a flight attendant reciting emergency disaster drills drives the feeling home. 

“New York” by Chel White is a gentle meditation on urban stillness. The gorgeously photographed skylines at dusk are quiet and motionless, save for an occasional speck of airplane moving across the sky in the distance. “After Sept. 11,” said Rosenblatt, “you couldn’t look at buildings and airplanes – especially in the same frame – ever again in the same way.” 

“New York” opens the second program. The two programs differ by their difficulty and accessibility. The selections in the first directly address the attack or the following war on terrorism. The one that does this the most powerfully is “Voice Of The Prophet,” an interview with army veteran Colonel Rick Rescola, filmed in 1998 on the 44th floor of the World Trade Center when he worked as head of security at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. After recalling his days in Vietnam combat, he predicts future wars will be terrorist in nature, and warns “we can’t be the world’s top cop.” The tragedy comes at the end via a title card announcing Rescola died on Sept. 11. 

The films of the second “Underground Zero” program point their focus away from Manhattan for a more impressionistic expression of feelings toward buildings, airplanes, television news, and the innocence and vulnerability of children. There are films like Marcel Jarmel’s “Collateral Damage,” wherein she compares the escalating tension in Afghanistan with the growth of her own children; and “End of an Era,” Lucas Saben’s NASA airplane crash-tests overlayed with jubilant, goofball songs by 14 year-old musicians Frankie and Jordan, who sing “Ralphy My Invisible Friend” and “Tongue For A Thumb” (“…everything is A-OK!”). 

“There’s something antithetical between war or violence, and kids,” said Zahedi about the child-oriented films coming out of the terrorist attack. “The juxtaposition of destruction and a child’s consciousness – and, really, beauty of soul – said something about what was going on.” 

Many of the experimental filmmakers – a group of people who are generally politically left-leaning – took on the tricky question of patriotism in a time of crisis. "Strange Mourning" briefly documents an impromptu pro-America demonstration at a Los Angeles intersection three days after the attacks; the cheerleading and "Born In The USA" blaring from a car stereo turned the display of national pride into something akin to a high school pep rally. 

"We saw more patriotism than I expected," said Zahedi about the films submitted, "but we generally didn’t like them. The ones we tended to prefer didn’t have that mainstream, knee-jerk reaction." 

Zahedi’s own piece in the program, "The World Is A Classroom," is a critical look at America’s unapologetic attitude for its own forieng policy crimes. The video documents a class he taught at the San Francisco Art Institute which came to a halt due to a dissenting student. The disruption was appeased by an apology from Zahedi himself. "My film is an allegory for what should be done," explained Zahedi. "I feel there needs to be a respect for and a responsibility taken toward these other people. My film is an attempt to speak out about the lack of that happening." 

Rosenblatt also has a film in the program suggesting a need for more understanding between Americans and Muslims. “Prayer” uses Rosenblatt’s signature technique of manipulating found footage to draw out and impregnate nuances of gesture and expression. Images of Muslim’s at prayer are intercut with those of Western schoolchildren doing the same. “I was trying to find something to have faith in and assuage how I was feeling,” said Rosenblatt. “It’s a film about faith and fear, and there’s a fine line between the two.” 

Although the call for entries went across the country, Rosenblatt said most of the submission came from the Bay Area. The fact of which does not show so much the health of the local experimental film community as it does the inability of New York filmmakers to take up the challenge. Most of the NYC filmmakers felt they did not have the distance from the subject to be able to adequately create something of it, said Rosenblatt. 

Eva Ilona Brezsky’s “China Diary” has the filmmaker suffering from too much distance. The New Yorker was in China the day of the attacks and tried to cut her vacation short to be able to return to Manhattan and ground zero. Rosenblatt could relate. “I’m from New York, myself. There was a feeling of ‘those are my people there.’” 

After 8 months, remembering the single most devastating attack to our national safety since the Civil War might remind us why we might want to step into “Spiderman” to forget about it once in a while. Rosenblatt says, however, there was a range of mixed emotions. 

“Momentarily, it brought the country together. There was actually a nice feeling of collectivity and community. I don’t think it lasted, but it was there initially.” 

The short montage of simple water imagery that makes up Nancy Kates “Vale Of Tears,” is preceded by a quote from Aeschylus which seems to defend the entire program: “…the pain of pain remembered comes again. So does ripeness.” 



“Underground Zero” plays at the Fine Arts Cinema at 2451 Shattuck Ave. May 10 through May 17.