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If you've been shopping for DVDs recently, you've probably come across one disc that doesn't seem to fit in. Lurking somewhere between the re-release of the Three Color series and Harry Potter is a DVD that has most definitely not been released in the US, showing the now-famous image of the World Trade Center in New York as it crumbles into the dust, blended with images of George W. Bush and al-Qaeda network leader Osama bin Laden.
The VCD originally appeared in urban CD stores three days after the attacks, before reappearing two weeks later as a DVD. The two versions, The Century's Greatest Catastrophe and Surprise Attack on America: The Pearl Harbor of the 21st Century sparked global debate as they moved from local DVD players into the international spotlight.
Although the DVD uses footage clipped from Xinhua and CNN broadcasts, it was created without the knowledge or consent of the news agencies in involved. The culprits for the disc, it seems, were amateur filmmakers who have remained nameless, who combined news clippings, documentaries, and press releases relating to the attacks of September 11, with clips from Hollywood films to add heightened tension and drama.
The opening sequence of the DVD is promising, produced in documentary style; but any legitimacy is quickly lost, as images of Bush addressing a nation in shock are spliced with shots from recent blockbuster release Pearl Harbor, and missile scenes from The Rock. Nicholas Cage is shown plunging into the waters off Alcatraz, while King Kong demolishes skyscrapers. Boundaries between the real and the imagined are blurred, and shocking situations are doused with glamor.
"The ideas behind the film are ambiguous," says one local Shanghai filmmaker. "You can't actually tell if they consider the event a tragedy or what. It just looks like some kids playing at making VCDs... that they made it because they thought it would be cool."
Whatever the motive behind this loose confection of a brief history of the Taliban, China's official reaction to the attacks, and the US's plans for revenge have proved to be financially lucrative, with movie shops selling out as soon as the film hit the shelves.
Whether people were buying a slice of history, or something with kitsch and sentimental value that may appreciate over the years, is uncertain. Certainly, though a flourishing trade in souvenirs of the biggest event of the new millennium has been developing on city streets.
Bin Laden masks and ceramic statuettes are among the trinkets found on sale in markets around Beijing and Shanghai. Sitting inconspicuously among the crowded stalls of clothing, make-up, and stuffed animals of the newly opened Women's Market in Beijing were small ceramic models, the height of coffee mug, showing the twin towers of the World Trade Center aflame. Other models included likenesses of George Bush in military briefs, bullets slung across his chest, and bin Laden giving a thumbs-up, standing on a base marked "U.S.A."
One saleswoman confided that the statuettes "weren't selling well" - except to foreigners, looking to buy something of a Zeitgeist of modern day China. Poor sales could well have something to do with the fact that they are ugly, poorly made with glue oozing out of the sides, and overpriced, at Y28 each.
The statuettes carry the web address for the Hong Kong-based manufacturer. Couched in vague terms, the corporate site claims to be "one of the biggest and trendiest lifestyle design wholesalers... with the cleverest, most affordable ideas." No images are offered on the site to determine what these "clever" ideas are.
Elsewhere, Halloween masks of bin Laden and Bush are selling for as much as Y45 a go. Again, it's the ex-pats who are buying them, although one stallholder remarked that "Chinese people have bought them to hang on their walls at home."
One Canadian shopper purchased multiple sets of the statuettes and masks. Asked why he was pandering to this trade in unsavory souvenirs, he answered: "I bought them because they're bizarre, sick, and twisted. Just the fact that someone could make them is so profoundly disgusting."
Another American customer said: "Several of my friends have asked me to buy one for them because they all know they'll wind up in a museum some day." Maybe.
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