Underground Zero
May 5, 2002

Home movies

    Right after the 9/11 attacks, many filmmakers and people working in film -- even someone on the fringes like myself -- experienced a feeling of uselessness.

    If you're a musician, you can at least play a song and raise some money, as many did with America: A Tribute to Heroes. But how much does film really matter in the long run?

    Local filmmakers Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi (who appeared in Richard Linklater's Waking Life) wondered the same thing. They challenged others to construct a short film of any type around the effects of 9/11 -- and compiled the resulting 13 films as Underground Zero, which opens today at the Roxie for a week's run. (It also opens Friday at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael and the Fine Arts Cinema in Berkeley.)

    As with any collection of shorts, the results vary wildly, from long and rambling to minor masterworks. Nonetheless, no one with a living, beating heart will walk away from this collection unmoved.

    The films vary in theme and emotional content to the same extent as our own reactions might have at the time. Some of the films express anger, like Valerie Soe's Carefully Taught, which uses images from old musicals to rail against the "sinister, mandatory patriotism" endorsed by the Bush administration. Likewise Norman Cowie's Scene from an Endless War, which compiles and loops several "eye-catching" graphics from various news programs.

    Filmmaker Eva Ilona Brzeski was apparently in China during the attacks and pieced together a video diary from her trip, China Diary (9/11), which struck me as uninspired and a bit long.

    Zahedi's film comes from footage of his documentary filmmaking class at the San Francisco Art Institute and contains an actual spat with one of his students. It, too, seemed to go on a little long -- how many times can one person use the word "like" in a sentence? -- and felt slightly pretentious, though Zahedi himself is always an interesting character to watch.

    Robert Edwards' The Voice of the Prophet will open a few eyes. It consists entirely of an interview with a World Trade Center security guard named Rick Rescorla. A former military man who has seen combat, Rescorla predicts in 1998 that terrorism here at home will be the next big war we will have to deal with. Too bad we're not a country that deals in prevention.

    The program's two masterpieces come, not surprisingly, from Oscar-winners Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt and The Celluloid Closet) and from Rosenblatt himself.

    Epstein and Friedman's film Isaiah's Rap interviews a teenager in New York City who ponders the hole in the New York skyline and offers a powerful homemade rhyme for our ears and hearts. It put a pretty big lump in my throat.

    Rosenblatt's beautiful and mesmerizing Prayer (which was also featured at the San Francisco International Film Festial) is a simple two-and-a-half-minute collage of black-and-white images of people praying, enchanted by a powerful score.

    The final short, Ira Sachs' Untitled, is nothing more than a silent slide show of the 9/11 victims. Before long the amateurish and fuzzy photographs turn into a parade of faces -- frozen ghosts. We leave the theater in stunned silence.

    While musicians can whip up a song in a few days, it took six months for the filmmakers to assemble these powerful films.

    Now that things are seemingly normal again, we may not want to revisit those dark days from last fall and be reminded once again of the massive horror of it all. But those who do witness Underground Zero will learn once again what it means to be human.

--Jeffrey M. Anderson


© Copyright 2002. Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi.