The terrorist attacks of September 11th in the USA were exactly 20 years ago on Saturday. Since then, numerous films and series have appeared that deal with it – directly or indirectly, documentary or fictional. The media expert Prof. Dr. Kathleen Loock teaches American Studies and Media Studies at the Leibniz University in Hanover and, in an interview with the RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland (RND), classifies how the films and series shape our memory of the historical event.
Ms. Loock, 9/11 was now 20 years ago. How much did this event affect the film and series landscape?
We have a lot of films that also add to the cultural memory of September 11th. The terrorist attacks also had an impact on the way series or films are told today. People often talk about post-9/11 cinema or television.
How is it currently with 9/11 films and series? Is that still an issue?
I believe September 11th will still play a role and a lot of documentaries will come out again. Immediately after the attacks, Hollywood was in part accused of having made action films with explosions and terrorist attacks something that was unimaginable in the first place. People who followed the news at the time said it was like being in a movie. Immediately afterwards there were probably relatively few films about terrorist attacks on the USA.
Has that changed over time?
A few years later, in 2004, 2005, 2006, came the big films that deal with 9/11, feature films that tried to be almost documentary and to reconstruct what had happened. So we have documentaries like Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) and films like Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” (2006), which take a look at the victims and first responders who first arrived on site. To help. At the same time, Stone’s film creates a common idea of what happened and writes a story in which the city of New York and the USA lose their innocence and the subsequent war effort in Iraq and against terrorism is legitimized.
If you go on for a few more years: How does the cinematic representation of the events develop?
Then it is less about the attacks themselves and more about the effects and the attempt to process death, grief and trauma. These are films like “Reign over Me” (2007) with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle or “Remember Me” (2010), where there is only this twist at the end that connects the film with September 11th. It is no longer about repeating images or filling in gaps that were also formed by televisual memory production, but more about how one can deal with the attacks afterwards. It’s something we still see in part today as films like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) continue to explore the aftermath of 9/11. After that, more and more films and series such as “Homeland” (since 2011) were added, which deal indirectly with the political consequences, the war on terror, the way in which the US reacted to the attacks, and the long-term effects deal critically.
How does the memory of 9/11 differ between people who have consciously experienced it and those who have not yet lived or were too young? What role do media and films play in this?
The generation that is now growing up did not even experience September 11th. Their memory, however, is constructed through iconic images from the media that continue to circulate. Both the images we know from television and the films and series thus shape the culture of remembrance and influence how we understand the past as well as the present. These media representations are also crucial for the national identity of the USA and how Americans see themselves as a people that has been exposed to these terrorist attacks. I believe that with regard to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, we will take stock once again: What did that actually bring – in terms of security against terrorist attacks?
So the media and films have a major impact on our memory of 9/11?
Yes, the memory of the event is shaped by the media, and these iconic images from television continue to influence how 9/11 is treated in the film, but also how similar terrorist attacks that are now being shown again in films and series are portrayed .
The media coverage of September 11th was also very special.
When you talk about 9/11, you always have to talk about a global media event in which the memory production on television took place at the same time as the event. News channels like CNN broadcast live and all over the world people could participate simultaneously and be constantly informed. It was very special that the attacks were pursued globally. Certain images, sequences, video excerpts were repeated over and over and thus also got this iconic character. Everyone knows the image of the “Falling Man”, generations who did not follow the reporting live at the time are also familiar with it.
How does the media influence differ from generations who consciously experienced the event?
We have generations for whom September 11th was such a dramatic event that there is a strong before-and-after feeling. And there are the younger generations who can only experience this through mediated memories. But there are many films that contribute to the personalization, dramatization and emotionalization of the event, so that you can claim this memory for yourself, even if you did not experience 9/11 yourself. I think that will keep us busy. This can also be seen in new films about the First or Second World War, which are intended to bring viewers closer to the historical event and its significance.
How do actual memories and those created by the media overlap in people who have experienced 9/11?
The memory researcher Astrid Erll once wrote that collective memory would be inconceivable without media. At the same time, the media also play a role in individual memories. Media create and circulate knowledge about ideas of a shared past. We also have our own memories – almost everyone knows where and how they found out about the attacks – but precisely because September 11 was such a media event, the images from the news shape the memory of what happened in New York is. This also applies to people who were there. The memories are fragmented and incomplete. And there are these gaps that films partially fill.
How can you imagine that?
What actually happened on September 11th is difficult to grasp. Such voids can fill films. Even the personal memories are mediated from the start through television pictures showing the plane flying into one of the twin towers. At the same time, these images also become part of the collective memory in that they are repeated and we can share the same memories of the attacks worldwide. Films that deal with this show versions of reality and make a story out of it. These stories are always shaped by ideologies, norms and values of society, and this also influences our perception.
You mentioned the gaps that are filled by films, some of which are fictional: Isn’t that also confusing because viewers cannot always distinguish between fact and fiction?
There was another series of films around the 2010s in which it was actually often criticized that they exploited the topic and only wanted to address the emotions of the audience and sometimes distorted things. Among other things, the film “9/11” with Charlie Sheen and Whoopi Goldberg was criticized for this in 2017. “Remember Me” was also criticized for the fact that 9/11 was used as a plot twist. The films that were produced a few years after 9/11 often worked with survivors and bereaved relatives and had their backing, such as “United 93” (2006) or Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center”. These films had a documentary quality, even if they dramatized the events and characters.
Isn’t that a contradiction?
In any case, that can be criticized strongly. Oliver Stone’s film “World Trade Center”, for example, which he said was not political at all, is very patriotic, tells a heroic story and plays heavily with music and religious images. It is designed to legitimize the US reaction. That should be viewed critically, but it wasn’t then. I do believe that these dramatic and emotionalizing films also strongly shape the memory of what happened on September 11th. You have to be very careful to see what kind of stories are being told. It is not about a one-to-one representation of reality, but about versions of reality and the past. And they are often patriotic and rarely critical. It only comes with time that critical voices also become loud.
Can you tell if the films were made in the USA or in another country? Does the US have a different cinematic view of it?
I guess so. There was this short film collection “11’09 ″ 01 – September 11” from 2002. There are eleven short films by international filmmakers, including Alejandro González Iñárritu and Sean Penn. They have a more global view of September 11th and in some cases also connect it to other events such as the coup on September 11, 1973 in Chile. In the US itself, a lot is about New York. Directly after the attacks, Hollywood even edited some sequences in which you can see the skyline at the beginning of a film, digitally afterwards and erased the World Trade Center so that it does not directly evoke memories. In “Spider-Man”, for example, these shots were removed from the finished film. Hollywood reacted very cautiously and initially stopped producing films about terrorist attacks.
Has this caution subsided to this day?
Of course there are again films that are about terrorist attacks, purely fictional ones like “White House Down” (2013) and “Olympus Has Fallen” (2013) and again based on real events like “Patriot’s Day” (2016), which the Attacks on the 2013 Boston Marathon discussed. But overall there are fewer such action films in this direction. What we have for this, for example, are films that deal with the war on terror, such as “Zero Dark Thirty” or “The Hurt Locker”, which also take a critical look at this and go to the theaters of war. In contrast to this, superhero films and series with their clear good-versus-evil patterns can be seen, which have become an integral part of post-9/11 cinema and television.