“S.O.S./State of Security — a devastating documentary about 9/11 and its aftermath — is having a tough time getting distribution on home soil as the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack approaches.
The sobering film, whose central figure is the longtime National Security Council terrorism czar, Richard Clarke, has been a struggle from the start: It had trouble getting financed, trouble getting made and now trouble getting U.S. distribution. Ironically, the reception has been better outside the U.S.
And it’s not for lack of timidity: “S.O.S” is a damning and often infuriating document of government failure, of policy hijacked by political considerations. In it, Clarke and an array of military leaders, intelligence analysts and media members (but no politicians) admit that they failed to anticipate the terrorist threat or adequately deal with it afterward.
Currently playing at the International Documentary Assn.'s DocuWeeks showcase at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, it opens for a week at the New York DocuWeeks on Aug. 26.
But when DocuWeeks ends, its prospects are questionable, director Michele Ohayon told TheWrap.
"We've had an easier time overseas," said Ohayon, who was Oscar-nominated for "Colors Straight Up" in 2007. "We played the Berlin Film Festival and did an international tour, but we were turned down by Sundance and Toronto and Film Independent, and we still have problems with domestic distribution."
The director had no explanation for the stateside struggles of her film, in which Clarke declares, "The most important thing the government should do is protect us at home and abroad And it has demonstrated a massive incompetence to do that."
Clarke takes some of the blame, and famously apologized to the families of 9/11 victims when he appeared before the 9/11 commission in 2004 (prompting attacks on his credibility and motives from within the Bush administration).
Clarke appeared after a Saturday night screening at the Sunset 5, participating in a lengthy post-screening Q&A and then remaining in the lobby answering more questions. (Photo of Ohayon and Clarke by Jon Vu.)
"If we stop using public agencies as punching bags for partisan fights … your government will fail you less, and it might even make you proud once in a while," said Clarke, who spends some of his time teaching at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The film began, said Ohayon, when a producer gave her advance chapters from Clarke's book "Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters" — but when Clarke wasn't interested in proving the kind of daily access she usually required of her subjects, she broadened its scope to include other witnesses from the last 10 years.
Private investors had promised to supply the film's entire budget — but when the market crashed in 2008, much of the money they'd pledged evaporated. Ohayon shot footage anyway, then shut down production for nine months and, she said, "knocked on every door" trying to find the financing to finish.
She wound up finding her angel in producer and philanthropist Sidney Kimmel (whose films include "United 93" and "The Kite Runner"), who watched 40 minutes of footage and gave her the money to finish.
The documentary loses some of its focus as it veers from 9/11 – the kind of Al-Qaeda attack that Clarke explicitly warned both the Clinton and Bush administrations about – to Clarke's current cyber-security crusade. Ohayon said the film was originally going to hew closely to Clarke's book and use the title "Your Government Failed You," but it seemed too strong when she started “S.O.S.”
"After Obama's election, there was an atmosphere of euphoria and I didn’t feel like it was the right time for that title," she said, then shook her head.
"Sadly, now it seems to fit again."