I told myself I wasn’t gonna go down any 9/11 rabbit holes for this 20th anniversary, when I knew retrospectives and rethinks would be in obnoxious, unavoidable full swing. I don’t need any reminders of a day that is seared into my memory, and will be for the rest of my life.
But I made a few exceptions. One was for Copilot, the third feature film from German writer-director Anne Zohra Berrached, cowritten with Stefanie Misrahi. This is the inspired-by-fact but mostly imaginary tale of the romance between Saeed (Roger Azar) and Asli (Canan Kir), medical students who meet and fall in love in Hamburg in the mid 1990s. The film keeps its cards very close to its vest, but Saeed is clearly meant to be Ziad Jarrah, the hijacker-pilot who would later be at the controls of United 93 when it crashed — when, possibly, he deliberately crashed it — in a Pennsylvania field on that horrible day. And Asli is an analog for his girlfriend, Aysel Şengün.
I am not sorry I made this exception. Copilot is a tough, painful watch, but it’s not a movie about planes crashing into towers or anything that has become perversely iconic about that day. It’s not even really about the geopolitics or the religious fundamentalism that spawned that day. Instead, this is an intimate story deeply immersed in Asli’s perspective, and it is not about assigning blame or excusing anyone. (The real Şengün is not believed to have any prior knowledge of what her boyfriend was up to. The real Ziad seems to have been the most secular of the 9/11 attackers. These facts are both reflected here.) This is a story about how love can be not only seductive, literally and figuratively, but also how love is a kind of brainwashing that we readily accede to.
Often, movies see romantic influence as a good, positive thing, and often it is just that: how we get sucked into the orbit of someone who intrigues us is typically meant to be the thrilling aspect about romantic comedies or dramas, and that narrowing of focus on someone captivating truly can be a lovely thing. In another movie, the charming male lead — and Saeed is charming, up to a point — translating a vow at their secret wedding as “You must always keep my secrets” would be cast as bewitching… erotic, even. Here? It’s a form of gaslighting, of indoctrination. Except Asli has absolutely no clue of that.
Asli is not stupid. Kir portrays her as a smart, stubborn, capable young woman, someone willingly defying her traditional Turkish parents by diving head first into a relationship with Lebanese Saeed. (Not that his being Lebanese is a problem. Him being a man that she might be having sex with outside some very narrow proscriptions is the problem.) Plus, you know, she is, by all accounts, a brilliant medical student. But she’s in love. And love can be a very dangerous thing.
Copilot is an often disconcerting movie. It uses cinematic conventions to disorient its presumed Western audiences, as how some dialogue is not subtitled: Asli doesn’t speak Arabic, so she — and we — aren’t privy to some of what Saeed, and his family when she goes to visit them, are saying. (Asli and Saeed share German and English as common languages.) It uses the presumptions of fictional romances to distract us, as Asli is distracted by the reality of romance, from everything happening outside her purview.
If anything, Copilot is an anti-romance. Instead of letting us get lost in the fantasy of love, it is a hard, tragic smack at a harsh reality of women’s lives, that relationships with men can be fraught with peril, that making ourselves vulnerable sometimes comes with great hazard. It bursts the bubble of a certain kind of movie delusion. Copilot is a difficult, challenging film, but one worth the effort, if you are up to it.