As the anniversary of September 11, 2001 looms, America reflects back on the tragedy through oral remembrances, photographic and video documents (most powerfully rendered and curated in Washington D.C.’s Newseum’s 9/11 Gallery), and movies. In the years following 2001, many films emerged in theaters that both recreated and attempted to make sense of the horror of that day, including Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006) and Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006). There have also been documentaries, such as Michael Moore’s inflammatory Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008). Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) pointedly explored the ramifications of 9/11 in both America and abroad, earning her an Academy Award for her fearlessness and artistically nuanced narrative. Yet, Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty (2004) predates them all as a film that went under the radar 12 years ago, but more than deserves a second look in Lower Manhattan’s shaow.
Land of Plenty follows Paul, a Vietnam veteran who compulsively puts Arabs under aural and optic surveillance. He’s fiercely loyal to his country, but obsessively motivated by the destruction of the Twin Towers. His every waking move involves the need to complete a ‘mission’ and anyone (or everyone) could be the enemy. It might be easy to dismiss Paul as a fanatic; yet, his relationship to his niece Lana (played by a breathtakingly open Michelle Williams) complicates and emotionally deepens his character. Lana has just returned home to the U.S. after several years in the West Bank, and she stays at a homeless mission, volunteering and praying alongside the missionary preacher (played by a stellar Wendell Pierce, most familiar to HBO TV audiences for his role as Detective Bunk on The Wire and trombonist Antoine Batiste in Treme).
Lana engages each person she meets with a smile and the desire to connect. She also still communicates with friends from the West Bank online, and watches Palestinian and Israeli confrontations on her laptop before praying and falling asleep. When she tracks down Paul, they slowly and tentatively build a delicate relationship, one in which Paul is forced to behave not like a soldier on a covert mission, but an Uncle responding to the compassion and kindness of his young niece.
Land of Plenty is aesthetically (and vastly) different from Wenders’ more critically acclaimed films like Wings of Desire (1987) or Paris, Texas (1984). He calls attention to the developments in digital technology that precisely allow for the ubiquitous surveillance that Paul so desperately seeks. In Peter Adey, Mark Whitehead, and Alison J. Williams anthology From Above: War, Violence and Verticality (2013), their introduction notes that “cinema ultimately [contributes] to the perceptual arsenal of military society, and cinema [is] certainly beholden to the lens of militarism.”
The same is no less true than in Land of Plenty where portions of the film are surveillance footage, the screens of computers, and aerial footage of the Twin Towers construction site. The very cinematography of Wenders’ film is indebted to the technologies used and codified by the military. The visuals are an indicator of the time period and cultural climate in which it was made, just as much as the buses with “God Bless America” on the front or bumper stickers of “United We Stand” are. The film visually evokes both the cultural paranoia and intense patriotism in America that ensued in the months and years following 9/11. When Paul starts to break down and shouts at his co-conspirator Jimmy, “America needs us! They tried to infect our country!” the ‘they’ is a not so subtle implication (and indictment) of Muslims.
In our current cultural and political climate, 15 years after 9/11, it is not difficult to find parallels between Paul’s inflammatory rhetoric and those in the public spotlight today. A pervasive fear of “otherness” infiltrates our national discussions regarding borders and refugees. Immigration will no doubt be at the fore of the impending presidential elections. And visually, surveillance footage has graduated from Paul’s rickety lone camera outside his van to drones.
On Oct. 5, 2014 New York Magazine published the article “Drones and Everything After” wherein author Benjamin Wallace-Wells cited the creation of at least 1,500 kinds of drones. Yet, these machines, which were once regarded as surveillance equipment, are now the instruments for a new way of seeing, not just in CIA meetings, but on our movie screens as well. Recently, “the U.S. government has decided to allow Hollywood production companies to film from drones, making possible visual angles that have so far existed only in animation.” This technology is not just aerial surveillance, but entertainment’s newest special effect. As Obi-Wan Kenobi might say to bemused directors, “These are the drones you’re looking for.” Thus, while Land of Plenty cinematography or acute hyper-vigilance just post-9/11 may seem a little outdated, there are still countless parallels to the global world we live in today.
Yet, Wenders is not offering a polemic film on politics or the war. Rather, he is interested in parsing through the intricacies of human relationships. When an Arab is shot outside the homeless missionary by a couple of white teenagers, Paul and Lana eventually deliver the body to the deceased’s brother. Though Paul considers this a covert operation of sorts, it quickly becomes a moment of connection, rather than of suspicion and separation. Lana helps him arrive at these moments of compassion and empathy, despite his best efforts to resist her. It is not unlike the angel Damiel from Wings of Desire, who has unlimited visual and aural access to all the humans surrounding him, yet can’t fathom or understand the sensation of holding a steaming cup of coffee or touching the nape of a woman’s neck.
Despite Damiel’s ability to survey anyone and everyone, he cannot feel or taste, or touch. He eventually rejects immortality in favor of a deep-rooted need for humanity. When Lana watches video footage of conflicts from the West Bank, she pauses to audibly articulate the graffiti on a crumbling wall: “better to have pains of peace than agonies of war.” Even in the midst of misery and suffering and xenophobia, it is love that unites us – and love trumps all.
Thus, even in the midst of fear, whether it be fear of the unknown, fear of someone different, or fear of ourselves, Wenders’ film suggests that suspicion does nothing to unite and subtly reminds us that the American motto, both before 9/11 and afterwards, is united we stand, divided we fall.