Underground Zero

** (Worth seeing)

The deadly airliners of September 11, 2001, leveled egos as well as buildings. Attacked by Muslim fundamentalists, we responded like guilty Puritans, as if ashamed of our indulgence, our insularity, and our dearly held individualism. United by pride and anger, bonding to absorb the shock, we began to call each other heroes, and the media celebrated the civil servants whose selflessness and sacrifice is so routinely ignored. Even some Hollywood celebrities and pop stars braved the nationally televised spectacles without their entourages of publicists, caterers, and makeup artists.

Yet we all have a right to process the trauma in our own way, with or without trained specialists standing by, and the testimony of individuals has been showcased over and over. Recently CBS aired The First 24 Hours, and HBO weighed in with In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01, which drew upon video from 16 news organizations and 118 freelancers and amateurs. A more personal perspective comes from the frontline tales collected in the new volume Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11 (Bonus Books), which fuse firsthand experience and first-person expression. One of the book’s editors, an investigative producer for WNBC TV, says that for two weeks after the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, showering her with debris, she cleaned “gritty, black dirt” from her ears with Q-tips. A field producer for Good Morning America recalls how he used Sprite to wash the grime from his eyes: “My eyes were sticky for the rest of the day.” A radio correspondent for the Associated Press who stood for hours in the Virginia sun comments, “A tomato-red face would be the mark of those who were there that day covering the Pentagon.”

Smaller audiences have been treated to a diverse spectrum of individual statements by film and video makers, work whose force and beauty comes not from their marshaling of stars and research staffs but from their personal and idiosyncratic perspectives. Some have been screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, the Double Take Film Festival in North Carolina, and the New York Underground Film Festival. And here in town, Facets Cinematheque is presenting “Underground Zero,” a 76-minute program compiling 13 short films and videos. Shortly after the terror attacks, San Francisco filmmakers Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi solicited work from some 150 experimental and documentary artists, from which they chose their program. I can’t comment on the 137 films that failed to make the cut, but most of the film and video makers featured seem to dwell in a subculture that fetishizes personal expression.

Like most of us, many of the artists on the program experienced the event and its aftermath through television, a phenomenon that New York video artist Norman Cowie tries to deconstruct in Scene From an Endless War, a work in progress excerpted for “Underground Zero.” It’s a loop of hyperbolic news show graphics (“Target: Terrorism,” and so on), intercut with various clips: a fighter pilot in his cockpit, Paula Zahn and Henry Kissinger on a set, Osama bin Laden cradling an automatic rifle in the desert. Crawling along the bottom of the frame is a continuous line of text like the ones cable-news stations use to deliver one-sentence stories. When I watch a breaking news broadcast live, I usually scan the screen first and then read the text; when watching Cowie’s video, I ignored the crawling text, assuming that it was just more noise in the stream of old news and that Cowie’s editing would reveal the message of his montage.

Only on a second viewing did I realize that the authoritative-looking line of text embedded in the frame was Cowie’s subversive tweak of the major media. To get all of it, I had to E-mail him. “Senior White House advisor and conservative strategist Karl Rove recently met with entertainment executives in Hollywood,” it reads. “Rove expressed his long standing concern that moving images might be used to raise questions about the war. Industry officials assured Rove that they would continue to produce images and sounds that would foreclose rational debate about such matters.” It’s a wonderfully worded slam against the collusion between corporate image makers and a popular administration, but the deconstructive joke may backfire as well–in my case, at least, the video’s din of “images and sounds” managed to drown out Cowie’s apt but quite literally marginal attempt at “rational debate.”

Other videos on the program refract the effects of the WTC attacks through imagery other than television. Ira Sachs’s Untitled is a silent sequence of 136 still photos of missing persons, presumably posted around Manhattan by loved ones. One photo is marked with an arrow and a note: “Mole under left eye.” Another identifies the 94th and 98th floors–both long gone–where the two men worked. The video’s minimalist elegy to the dead is both modest and unambiguous. In Carefully Taught, Valerie Soe reads her conflicted diatribe against “sinister mandatory patriotism” while showing clips from eight American musicals. And in Prayer, curator Jay Rosenblatt blends archival footage of various acts of prayer from around the world. Eva Ilona Brzeski, who lives in New York’s Chinatown, not far from the Twin Towers, was touring the Great Wall of China with her mother on September 11. Her China Diary (911) is the only work on the program with footage of the airliner attacks, as broadcast by Chinese stations. She strains to personalize the tragedy by telling of her grandfather, an electrical engineer who worked on the World Trade Center after abandoning her mother, but her narcissism is typical of an indie genre that, for all its artiness, is as self-aggrandizing as the glossiest celebrity profile.

The perils of such a self-centered style are most apparent in The World Is a Classroom by Caveh Zahedi, the other curator of the program. His first feature, A Little Stiff (1991), was an autobiographical narrative about his neurotic pursuit of an art-school painter, with all the principal characters played by their real-life counterparts. In Richard Linklater’s animated feature Waking Life, Zahedi extolls the theological theories of French cinema critic Andre Bazin and asks another character to stare into his eyes and generate “a holy moment.” Zahedi is no stranger to self-inquiry; he’s currently finishing another autobiographical work titled I Was a Sex Addict. His first-person entry in “Underground Zero” aims for an intimate poetic authenticity that implodes before our eyes.

One week after the attacks Zahedi asked students in his “Personal Poetic Documentary” class at the San Francisco Art Institute to stand up, walk around the classroom, and move their bodies to communicate. All this was being recorded on videotape because, a week before the attacks, he’d asked each student to make a film or video about the class itself. Zahedi demonstrates this physical communication by making dancelike gestures toward a lithe female student. After a few minutes of this, Daniel, a student wearing a black beret, says, “This is really silly.” Zahedi is stunned. “I feel attacked,” he replies, quaking with rage and fighting back tears. “I am having an emotion here.” Daniel tells him to “chill down,” which further inflames Zahedi. He orders Daniel out of the class, and Daniel goes to the dean.

Making art out of interpersonal conflict fits into Zahedi’s curricular vision. “I don’t like this hierarchical thing,” he states on the first day of class. He says he’s not a big fan of democracy either but hopes the class will find a “dialectic” between the two. His ongoing feud with Daniel is “reality,” he insists, and that’s what documentary is all about. One student replies that he can watch his brother and mom bicker at home for free. Zahedi looks at the big picture: “To me it’s the same power struggle going on in the world.

“When I was younger I was very political,” Zahedi says. “I was very, very angry at the way the world was being handled. I was considering a career in terrorism.” He made a pact with some comrades. “We were going to get a car bomb and drive into the Pentagon and try to destroy it….What really saved me, I think, from that was art.” Despite its title, The World Is a Classroom shows us an artist looking through the wrong end of the telescope. But if America stands for anything, I suppose it’s the freedom to assert the absurd and make art out of it–once Daniel signs his release form.