Academic Writing

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Space Between

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Today marks the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.  This is an event which has never left the American parlance from the day it occurred.  The images are burned in our minds’ eye as something we will never forget.  Across New York, and the country, people are commemorating the horrific events in many different ways.  Some are choosing memorial services, private reflection, film screenings, and so-on.  Broadcast and cable television stations are also honoring the day with programming devoted to memorializing the events.  Something like this should be covered with grace and sensitivity, and I do believe that that’s what the networks would like to be doing.  However, for so much of it, watching the networks vie for eyeballs for their 9/11coverage feels like I’m watching a modern day land-grab.  With a finite number of viewers and what feels like an infinite number of watching options, each network is desperately trying to get the most viewers to tune into their coverage of the 9/11 tragedy’s 10th anniversary.  At times it feels like this solemn event is being monetized and trivialized for rating points. 

There are some, however, which are using the best their medium has to offer to memorialize this day.   For many of the news stations it seems as though coverage will be, for the most part, interviews with survivors, first responders, politicians.  And some will be replaying footage from their original broadcasts 10 years ago.  The so-called 9/11 tapes have just been released and those will be sure to get a lot of air time.  Personally, I find a lot of it to be reliving trauma, and PTSD-inducing.  While it’s of course important to never forget, it’s also vital to move forward with the healing process and I’m not sure a constant barrage of graphic imagery, although familiar, is necessarily the best way to do that.  

USA Network has chosen a different route.  They have chosen to use artistry and storytelling to commemorate the attacks.  As part of their pro-social initiative, Characters Unite, a "public service campaign dedicated to combating prejudice, discrimination and intolerance while promoting understanding and acceptance,"  they will be showing the film The Space Between tonight at 9 pm. 

The Space Between, starring Oscar winner Melissa Leo, premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival and tells the story of Omar (Anthony Keyvan), a Pakistani-American boy who was on his way from New York to Los Angeles to attend an elite private Muslim school when the towers were hit.  His plane is grounded and he is stranded in a strange city with no family or friends around for miles. Having been left to care for him on the plane, Montine, an ornery and irritable flight attendant, agrees to take him back home to find his father, who worked in one of the towers.  As they journey back East, they learn about one another and about themselves during a time of national crisis.   

The film's plot plays a little cliché: an ill-tempered adult forced into a situation with an idealistic, innocent and somewhat precocious youngster.  The unlikely pair eventually learns to take the best the other has to offer to further their personal development and they help each other get through a particularly rough period in their lives.  Interestingly, it's almost reminiscent of 1969's Easy Rider.  While it might seem as though these two films have nothing in common, they share a link that might shed some insight into how cinema offers a look at our country in difficult times.  They are both about two unlikely heroes who travel from West to East, the opposite of the frontier exploration, and encountering what America and Americans are like in an unchartered era of unknown and fear of those who are different. Both Montine and Omar are outsiders looking for a place to fit in with society and their famlies.  They have both suffered great losses and are trying to navigate in a world where their place has been called into question.

There have been a number of films made about the attacks over the years, but none of them were particularly memorable or impressive.  Further, they generally have not tackled one of its most lasting social effects.  However, this film, made nearly 10 years after the horrific events, there is enough hindsight and even objectivity to understand and discern between Muslim extremists and the general Muslim community.  Omar’s father has taught him to be kind and generous with people and yet he is faced with prejudice and anti-Muslim sentiments time and again.  The implicit irony, of course, is that Omar is the peaceful character contrasted with Montine who instigates and incites fights pretty much wherever she goes.  This irony is a commentary on our society that perhaps the world was not ready to see (nor was Hollywood ready to make) until this time.  However, it offers an insight into our state of heightened prejudice and asks us to take a look at how we view others.  Its asks audiences to look at the whole person, not just their skin color or how they dress or any other external features, before passing judgement.

Ten years later we, as a nation, are still grappling with the questions of how something so terrible could have happened on our shores.  Our lawmakers, armed forces and all the others entrusted with our safety are trying desperately to ensure it does not happen again.  Still, we remain incredulous and unsure about what the future holds.  In this regard, Omar is our voice, the voice of the audience who is watching his story.  In one scene Omar asks Montine’s brother why God lets bad things happen.  It’s so innocent, yet at the same time, such a loaded question.  He is the voice of the audience as we are as naïve as he is, despite our attempts to understand and comprehend just how something so horrific could have happened. 

This film is an honest portrayal of two people’s stories.  It does not attempt to make any grand assumptions about the nation on a whole or how the world reacted.  It's not perfect,but it's quiet and quite gripping, and in a media landscape where everyone seems to be shouting this is the quiet whisper which actually has something to say and whose voice is worth listening to. 

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