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Culture

New Film on 9/11 Terrorists Looks at Hamburg Cell

To the world at large, and the US in particular, they will always be known simply as terrorists, but a new docu-drama takes a deeper look at the men behind the 9/11 attacks.

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Head hijacker Mohammed Atta lived in Hamburg's Marienstrassee

British director Antonia Bird's docu-drama The Hamburg Cell -- the first film about the people behind the attacks -- has been well received at the Venice International Film Festival.

Using court transcripts, information gathered by intelligence agencies and interviews with men who attended Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and who personally knew the ringleaders, The Hamburg Cell paints a compelling picture of who they were and the thinking that drove them to carry out the attacks.

"People are ready to examine the atrocious events that happened on of September 11," Bird told a press conference in Venice. "I think people want to understand now what's behind them."

US interest

Producer John Aukin is hopeful the film, which debuted on British television last week, will soon be shown in the United States.

"As far the American reaction is concerned, even as recently as a year ago they didn't want to know about this story," said Aukin. But he points out that the success of Michael Moore's anti-war film Fahrenheit 9/11 seems to have shifted the landscape, and there's now a considerable interest in The Hamburg Cell from the American news media.

"Every day we get an invitation to take to film to another festival in the States, so there is clearly great interest in it," he said.

Painstaking research

Der Marrokaner Mounir El Motassadeq zu Beginn des Prozess am Dienstag, 17. August 2004 im Oberlandesgericht in Hamburg.

The film explores the lives and minds of the men who made up the Hamburg group led by Mohammed Atta. One was Mounir El-Motassadeq (photo), currently on trial in Hamburg, and another was Ziad Jarrah, who came from Lebanon to study in Hamburg, played in the film by Karim Saleh.

"I felt it was a difficult part to play and the responsibility was huge," said Saleh. "Drawing from my own story and from my background, I was trying to find the elements that compelled Ziad Jarrah."

Bird and Irish scriptwriter Ronan Bennett pride themselves on the accuracy of the research which went into the making of the film, shot in Hamburg with an Arab cast, many of whom are observant Muslims. "I think that the value of this film is that the research has been so thorough. I felt so confident in the script when I started to direct it," said Bird.

An outsider's view

An obvious difficulty for Bennett was that he was an outsider, with an Irish Catholic upbringing, trying to understand Islam. "I went to see some observant Muslims and asked them simple questions about Islam... but also people who'd been to the Afghanistan training camps, and trained there and who knew the Jihadi mentality," said Bennett.

What struck him most was the idea of the group and solidarity in Islam. "There's a very early scene in the film when (Jarrah's) isolation as a newcomer to Germany is pointed up. An observant Muslim tells him: 'don't be alone, it's a hostile world out there. Alone the individual is isolated and vulnerable but together with your brothers you can be strong'. An important thematic aspect of the film was the attraction of the group," he points out.

The film focuses on the internal and external pressures on men like Ziad Jarrah, as well as the social and religious pressures that shaped the group on their journey from being students in Germany to carrying out one of the most devastating terror attacks in history.

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