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Alejandro González Iñárritu




Gaye Chan
Kaili Chun
Sally Clark
Binh Danh
Ian Everard
James Fee
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Robin Kandel
John Morita
Katsushige Nakahashi
Masami Teraoka
Lynne Yamamoto

It is a great honor to include Alejandro González Iñárritu’s short film 11’09”01 in Reconstructing Memories.1 González Iñárritu’s feature films – such as 21 Grams (2003) and Amores perros (2000) – are innovative and highly dynamic, both in terms of their visual design and narrative arrangement. The kinetic energy of Gonález Iñárritu’s feature films is very much evident in his 11’09”01, but the dynamics that we might associate with his feature films is handed over to us.

His short film 11’09”01 stands out for its relative sparseness. For the most part, the screen remains black, punctuated by images that only last for a second from that horrific day and eventually dissolving into a blinding white. Despite the minimalist visual design, the film is rich and highly emotive. The syncopated editing, the occasional flashes of images that momentarily punctuate the continuity of the black screen, are among the least repeated in mass media: people jumping/falling from the upper levels of the World Trade Center. These images are so terribly poignant that there is no need for them to remain on the screen for any more than a split-second. Moreover, there is hardly any need for visual representations since those images are undoubtedly emblazoned in our minds, to show us those images would in a sense be redundant.

The black screen is far from limiting, quite the opposite it is ever expansive and expanding. It offers a meditative space on which we can project our own experiences, filling up that deep and complex abyss. The black screen has antecedents in, for example, the Rothko Chapel (Houston, Texas), where Rothko’s black canvases line the octagonal chapel. Like González Iñárritu’s black screen, the paintings in the Rothko Chapel do not dictate, but offer a space for individual and private introspection.

The sound design might further advance this comparison to the paintings in the Rothko Chapel.2 Largely due to the nature of the soundtrack González Iñárritu’s piece, for the lack of any better word, touches on the sacred. The voices that inhabit the black space are like voices from a choir, a prayer, or even reminiscent of the Muslim call for prayer. The abstracted incantation, the voices of Babel, the mingling of Spanish, English and Arabic are orchestrated together, at once expressing a universal human experience of finding cathartic value in harmony, rhythm and sacred incantation, and at the same time filled with discord in its vocalized chorus of mutual distrust, anxiety, and misunderstanding. This is further emphasized by the text that concludes the piece, first appearing in Arabic, and then in English, “Does God’s light guide us, or blind us?” Golzález Iñárritu, rather than show us the images from that horrific day, creates an auditory collage: English and Spanish-language news reports, phone messages left by loved ones from one of the hijacked planes and from the WTC before they collapsed. The soundtrack builds into a crescendo of chaos and the sounds of the WTC collapsing, on top of this deafening climax González Iñárritu juxtaposes an invocation of Allah set against a vehement male voice, “We should hit every country that harbors terrorists and not only the terrorist camps: I want their fathers to be hit, I want their mothers to be hit, I want their children to be hit, I want the world to be afraid of us again.” The last phrase, “I want the world to be afraid of us again,” is repeated alternately against the invocation of Allah, set to the cacophony of the WTC collapsing.

The darkness allows for a personal identification with that infamous day. There is no ‘tyranny of the image’ here. No doubt everyone saw those horrific images as they were broadcasted live across the globe and in the minutes, weeks, months following we saw them over and over again. In the various documentaries that followed architects and structural engineers poured over, dissected, scientifically scrutinized, and fastidiously explained how each of the WTC Towers collapsed. Likewise politicians and historians pontificated on the origins of the September 11th terrorist attack. (But somehow never truly addressing that core question that almost immediately surfaced: Why do they hate us so much?) While they certainly serve a purpose something was lost though in those documentary representations of 9/11 in their logical and methodical pursuit of answers. The complexity of human emotions and the individual experience were largely dispensed with in the interest of ‘objective’ discovery. But surely in recent memory there is no other day in history that evokes such a strong emotional charge, so why deny it?3

González Iñárritu’s film redresses the imbalance in the representations of 9/11. In his film there is nothing to dictate to us how to identify with this horrific day, which for most of us still conjures up an array of abject emotions. Although seemingly paradoxical, ‘limiting’ – if that is even the right term – the visual composition encourages identification. The black screen is liberating because it encourages us to reflect on our own experiences. It is here before González Iñárritu’s black screen that we are allowed to reconstruct our own memories.


  1. González Iñárritu’s short film was originally included in a collection of short films entitled September 11th (produced by Alain Brigand, 2002). This collection of short films includes 11 different films, by 11 different filmmakers, from 11 different countries on the subject of that infamous day: September 11, 2001.
  2. In cinematic history there is also Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), which as it happens also hints at some sacred or sublime experience. Blue is a meditative film – the screen remains blue throughout – exploring Jarman’s experience of being HIV positive, the complications of the disease, including the loss of his sight, and of a calm yet anger-filled acceptance of death. Jarman died February 19, 1994.
  3. In an effort to capture something of the emotion of that horrific day, although certainly not as successful, Michael Moore in his Fahrenheit 9/11 actually adopts González Iñárritu’s strategy by using a black screen coupled with a similar audio design in the opening moments of his film. Moore actually uses some of the same audio, and eventually opens on to a montage of images from that horrific day set to Arvo Pärt’s highly evocative Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.


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stills from 11'09"01



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