Media expert on 20 years of 9/11: ‘Films can fill in the gaps’

The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States occurred exactly twenty years ago on Saturday. Since then, many films and series dealing with it – directly or indirectly, documentaries or fiction – have been released. The media expert, Dr. Kathleen Locke teaches American Studies and Media Studies at Leibniz University in Hanover, and in an interview with Editorial Network Germany (RND), ranks how films and series shape our memory of a historical event.

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Mr. Dr. Kathleen Lock, Junior Professor of American Studies and Media Studies at Leibniz University Hannover.

Mrs. Locke, 9/11 is now 20 years ago. How did this event affect the scene of the movie and the series?

We have a lot of movies that also add to the cultural memory of 9/11. The terrorist attacks have also had an impact on the way soap operas and movies are narrated today. People often talk about cinema or television after 9/11.

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What is the current status of the September 11 films and series? Still the issue?

I think 9/11 will still play a role and many documentaries will appear again. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Hollywood was partly accused of using action movies with explosions and terrorist attacks to make the unimaginable possible in the first place. People who were following the news at the time thought it looked like a movie. Perhaps this is one reason why there were relatively few films immediately afterwards that dealt with the terrorist attacks on the United States.

Has that changed over time?

A few years later, in 2004, 2005 and 2006, the big 9/11 movies came out, feature films that tried to be semi-documentary and reconstruct what happened. So we have documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) by Michael Moore on one hand and films like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006) on the other, which take a look at the victims and first responders who get there first, helping. At the same time, Stone’s film creates a shared vision of what happened and writes a story in which New York City and the United States lost their innocence and the subsequent war effort in Iraq and against terrorism was legitimized.

If you go further: How is the cinematography of events evolving?

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Then it is not so much about the attacks themselves as it is about the effects and trying to process death, grief and trauma. Then there are movies like “Reign over Me” (2007) with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle or “Remember Me” (2010), where there’s only this twist at the end that connects the movie to 9/11 in the first place. It’s no longer about repeating images or filling in the gaps also formed by the television production of memories, but more about how to deal with the attacks afterwards. That’s something we’re still seeing somewhat today, as films like Extremely Loud & Incredably Close (2011) continue to explore the fallout from 9/11. Subsequently, more and more films and series such as “Homeland” (since 2011) were added, which indirectly deal with the political fallout, the war on terror, the way the United States responded to the attacks, and the long run. The effects of dealing decisively.

How does the memory of 9/11 differ between people who have consciously experienced it and those who did not live at the time or were very young? What role do the media and films play here?

The generation that has come of age now did not see until 9/11. However, their memory is built up through iconic images from the media, which continue to go viral. Each of the images we know from television, movies, and series shapes a culture of remembrance and influences how we understand the past, but also the present. These media representations are also important to the national identity of the United States and how Americans see themselves as the people who have faced these terrorist attacks. I think in terms of withdrawal from Afghanistan, the balance will be re-balanced: What has that actually achieved – in terms of security against terrorist attacks?

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After a plane crashes into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York, it collapses.

So the media and movies have a huge impact on how we remember 9/11?

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Yes, the memory of the event is shaped by the media, and these iconic TV images continue to influence how 9/11 is portrayed in movies, but also how similar terrorist attacks are now portrayed again in movies and series.

The media coverage of 9/11 was also very special.

When you talk about 9/11, you always have to talk about a global media event in which memories were produced on TV at the same time as the event. News channels like CNN were broadcasting live and people from all over the world could participate simultaneously and get continuous information. It was very special that the attacks were being monitored globally. Some of the images, sequences, and video excerpts were repeated over and over again, giving it its own distinct character. Everyone is familiar with the “fallen man” image, and generations who didn’t follow live reporting back then know it too.

How is the influence of the media different from the generations that were still aware of the event?

We have generations for whom 9/11 was such a pivotal event that there is such a strong sense of what came before and after it. There are younger generations who can only experience it through memories that are mediated. However, there are so many films that help to personalize, dramatize, and emotionalize the event that even if you haven’t experienced 9/11 yourself, you can claim that the memory is yours. I think this will keep us busy. This can also be seen in the constant stream of new films about the First or Second World War, which aim to bring viewers closer to the historical event and its significance.

How do actual memories and those generated by the media overlap in people still suffering from 9/11?

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Memory researcher Astrid Earl once wrote that collective memory is inconceivable without the media. At the same time, the media also plays a role in individual memories. The media creates and disseminates knowledge about ideas about a common past. Wir haben auch eigene Erinnerungen – fast jeder Mensch weiß, wo und wie er von den Anschlägen erfahren hat -, aber gerade weil der 11. September so ein Medienereignis war, prägen die Bilder aus den Nachrichten die Erinda New York passernertung in an ese he is. This also applies to the people who were there. Memories are fragmented and incomplete. And there are those gaps that films fill in part.

How can you imagine it?

It is difficult to understand what actually happened on September 11th. Films can fill in gaps like this. Even personal memories are mediated from the start by television images showing the plane flying through one of the Twin Towers. At the same time, these images also become part of the collective memory by repeating them and allowing us to share the same memories of attacks around the world. Films that show versions of reality and make a story out of it. These stories are always shaped by society’s ideologies, rules, and values, and this also influences our perception.

You mentioned the gaps that films fill, some of which are fictional: Isn’t this also confusing, because viewers cannot always distinguish between fact and fiction?

Circa 2010 there was another series of films that were often criticized for exploiting the subject matter and only wanting to capture the emotions of viewers and in some cases tending to distort things. Among other things, the 2017 movie “9/11” with Charlie Sheen and Whoopi Goldberg was criticized for it. Remember Me has also been criticized for its use of 9/11 as a plot misrepresentation. Feature films made a few years after 9/11 have often worked with and supported bereaved families, such as United 93 (2006) or Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. These films had a documentary pretense, even if they were dramatic of events and characters.

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Is this not a contradiction?

Anyway, one can be very critical of it. For example, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, which he said wasn’t political at all, is a very patriotic movie, tells a heroic story, and plays heavily with religious music and imagery. It is designed to legitimize the response of the United States. This should be viewed critically, but it wasn’t like that at the time. I think these dramatic and emotional films also form the memory of what happened on 9/11. You have to be very careful what kind of stories are being told. It is not about representing reality individually, but about copies of reality and the past. They are often patriotic and rarely critical. There comes a time when critical voices get loud as well.

Can you infer from the films whether they were made in the United States or another country? Does the United States have a different cinematic view?

I think so. For example, there was this short film collection “11’09 01 – 11 September” from 2002. It consists of eleven short films by international directors, including Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Sean Penn. They have a more global view of 9/11 and sometimes also link it to other events like the 9/11 coup in Chile. In the United States itself, there is a lot to do with New York. Immediately after the attacks, Hollywood edited the digital sequences in which it sees the horizon at the beginning of the film and scans the World Trade Center so that it does not directly evoke the memories. With “Spider-Man,” for example, this footage has already been removed from the final film. Hollywood reacted very cautiously and initially stopped making films about terrorist attacks.

Has this caution subsided to this day?

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Of course there are other films that deal with terrorist attacks, purely fictional films like “White House Down” (2013) and “Olympus Has Fallen” (2013) and again based on real events like “Patriot’s Day” (2016), which attacks on 2013 Boston Marathon. But overall, there are fewer action movies in reverse. What we have for this are films that deal with the war on terror, like “Zero Dark Thirty” or “The Hurt Locker,” which take a critical look at them and go to war theatres. In contrast, superhero films and series, with their distinct patterns between good and evil, have become an integral part of film and television after 9/11.

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