Underground Zero
August 2002

Gareth Evans looks beyond patriotic responses to 9/11 to find the personal Underground Zero

Is it too far-fetched to conceive of the World Trade Center in the minutes before its collapse as an architectural equivalent of the atomic mushroom cloud? If the association feels untenable beyond a crude visual likeness, it’s used primarily to suggest how images of such momentous incidents remove balance from the process of seeing. Just as the towers, when they stood, cast great shadows over Manhattan, now their absence reaches out considerably further. If perspectives questioning the US administration’s take on the crisis have been publicly minimal in the States, it’s surely in part because the space left by the buildings can always be thrown back in answer.

This was the difficulty facing San Francisco based experimental filmmakers Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi when they asked 150 America independent and artist colleagues to create a short film or video responding to 9/11 and its aftermath. The call was generated both to counter a sense of impotence at what was unfolding and to offset the monotone of political propaganda with a plurality of opinions.

From the 60 works received, 13 were selected - primarily for the sense of narrative argument they developed when put together - to produce the feature-length, Underground Zero, to be shown at London’s ICA in August. Emily Dickinson once advised, “Tell the truth but tell it slant”, and these engaged, intriguing video diaries, essays and lyrical meditations make larger statements through a focus on detail and observation. Claiming a degree of street-level access and democracy for the moving image, they make central the communal and private in the face of governmental blustering and manipulative patriotism. Context is all: scenarios that might be merely interesting elsewhere here become charged with restorative urgency.

There’s Paul Harrill looking to Buddhist monks in Tennessee for an older insight, or Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman listening to 14-year-old TriBeCa resident Isaiah rap a way out of his distress at the destruction of his neighbourhood. Eva Brzeski lived nearby too, but she reports, with disbelief, from a generally unperturbed China. Ira Sachs finds no words. His silent Untitled logs some of the hundreds of ‘missing’ portraits found on street posters; while the people still alive have their faces scrubbed out, those left in the pictures are the disappeared. Implicitly the chain of loss continues beyond the tape’s end to incorporate all the deaths from conflict, amplifying the event without reducing its local and memorial aspects.

Rosenblatt’s contemplative Prayer threads scenes from American emergency drills with 1950s film of Muslims at worship to consider mass reactions and a common humanity. Both traits feature more disturbingly in David Driver’s A Strange Mourning, a record of street-corner patriotism in L.A. Zahedi’s video The World Is a Classroom tests the thresholds of discussion in a college environment, placing the director center stage in an increasingly heated stand-off with a student. The dispute soon begins to echo the larger conflict and in its construction of a combative reality provokes critical association with general media representation of war.

It is left to The Voice of the Prophet, Robert Edwards’ 1998 interview with retired career soldier Rick Rescorla - then head of security at Morgan Stanley on the WTC’s 44th floor- to bring home the complexity of the situation. In the simplest of single camera set-ups, Rescorla delivers a prescient and radical reading of contemporary geo-politics, corporate/military co-operation and the nature of coming threats, his observations given a desperate and ironic edge by what we learn of him in the closing moments.

Comparable to Far from Vietnam (1967) and Germany in Autumn (1978), Underground Zero is a compelling collective film project, a once personal and political. Serving both to protest and consider, it engages with the challenges of the times and the limits of the moving image itself, coming back with something more human, something worth saving and striving for.


© Copyright 2002. Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi.