One Year Later:
The Faces of September 11th
September 9, 2002 | One year has passed since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. One year to try to heal, reflect and, in some cases, forget. There seems to be a sense in parts of the country that New Yorkers should "get over it" and that the frequency of tributes is just too much media overexposure. While everybody grieves in their own way, it's impossible to imagine how the enormity of the events of September 11th could possibly be put to rest in such a short time.
Perhaps the pain of that beautiful Autumn day has faded for some while others figure that only the families of the dead have the right to grieve. While those families in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, Boston, California and elsewhere who suffered immediate loss clearly have had their lives turned upside-down, there is a less easily identifiable pain that many others share.
The process of dealing with the attacks has been filled with images from the start. Most Americans found themselves watching the inescapable TV coverage of the carnage early on. From there nearly all channels became round-the-clock news programs. Eventually people started looking for diversions, but even then they sought related material like DVDs of The Siege and patriotic movies like Behind Enemy Lines. On September 24th, long before we started Cinema Gotham and reeling from the attacks, we found ourselves writing about the films that we thought would help on some level understand the pain. (link) But all along we were confronted with the awful footage of the planes, the explosions, the collapses. Eventually more thoughtful films appeared that sought to put these immensely provocative images into context. With the anniversary of the attacks a number of films are being released to DVD and select theaters, and some are being re-aired, that should remind those who've forgotten the full impact.
Among the many films created to try to make some sense of the attacks, there are some programs that simply demand to be seen. There is a diversity to the best ones that reminds us that each experience is unique and that no one person's is the full story. Taken together, however, they begin to draw a picture of the extent of the damage. Two documentaries that take vastly different approaches are now showing at theaters in New York. Steven Rosenbaum's 7 Days in September gathers footage from 27 professional and amateur videographers to create a collage that covers a tremendous amount of ground. Over the course of one week the film travels all around New York (and a little bit of New Jersey) visiting with a lot of different kinds of mourning. Steven Mudrick and Bryan Kortis' WTC Uncut, on the other hand, focuses visually on the towers themselves in a way that makes it unique among 9/11 projects. And the previously aired 9/11 and Telling Nicholas dive right in to some of the most emotionally intimate circumstances.
Like most 9/11 filmmakers, Mudrick and Kortis never intended to make their film. When Mudrick arrived in the office of Mado productions he looked out the 12th story window and saw both towers already in flames. After quickly setting up a video camera he shot the towers through their collapse and the mushroom cloud of dust and asbestos that replaced them. WTC Uncut is built around 75 nearly-continuous minutes of the towers in flames. With only a cut for a new tape, Mudrick and Kortis present the tragedy as it happens. But the distance of their view, several miles away, gives their images a strange removed quality. The content is unmistakable but no faces are ever seen. The only recognizable human forms are a group of people on the next roof, backs to the camera, watching the same thing. When the south tower crumbles they slap their hands to their foreheads as if to try to contain their panicked sense of helplessness.
The angle also gives the film a sense that it encompasses the breadth of New York architecture. The space between the viewer and the towers is filled with the water towers that inhabit the roofs of many older Manhattan buildings while the focus of the image, the WTC towers themselves, are the epitome of sleek modernity. The contrast would seem clever and quaint if it weren't for the smoking, burning gashes in the newer buildings.
The visuals of WTC Uncut may be simple and to the point, but the soundtrack paints a much more complex picture. The filmmakers collected sound from a wide variety of sources, both during and over the months following the attack, and edited together a powerful, expansive taste of the anger, confusion, sadness, fear and pride of New Yorkers. The film begins with the sound of New York's news radio station 1010 Wins breaking the news of the attack. While this segment is out of sync with the picture (the announcer talks of only one collision while the visuals already show the damage from both) there is a real urgency to the announcer's voice that brings the shock back in full force.
The soundtrack moves from group prayers to interviews with people on the street to underscore the diversity of people affected. Some voices come from pacifists at candle-light vigils speaking about the futility of military retaliation while others express the desire to find the culprits and put them in the ground. President Bush's first speech (the "apparant terrorist attack" one) pops up at one point. The voice of a young boy refers to the attack as "the accident." Bagpipes play "Amazing Grace." The camera zooms in and out tentatively, panning around to adjacent buildings. It's clear that the filmmakers intended to get raw footage that could be used as individual shots for another purpose, often jarringly restarting a camera move half-way through. All the while the black smoke billows out.
Then at about the 38 minute mark the south tower comes down. The voices take on truly terrified tones. The 1010 Wins announcer is literally speechless, the air going silent for what seems like many seconds. The soundtrack soon adds Arabic chanting and a scuffle between Arab-Americans and hurt, angry non-Arabs, as well as a statement from a woman who can't reconcile her pacifist views with her thirst for revenge.
The form of WTC Uncut is completely different from any other piece on the subject but through this audacious effort the filmmakers have created a powerful, focused, meditative film. (WTC Uncut is available on DVD here.)
7 Days in September takes as hopeful a trajectory as possible. Collecting the footage from various sources and adding interviews with the videographers who shot it, the film moves from the madness of the 11th to the shell-shocked daze of the 12th to the increasingly political emotions of the 13th and beyond. There are tellingly surreal images early on, like a man rollerblading through the debris-flooded streets or a vendor shaking the dust off his flower bouquets.
Much of the footage in this early segment, however, is surprisingly new. One videographer finds himself sharing the decimated lobby of an empty building with several other dust-covered civilians. There is already a stunned energy about these people. No one yells or screams but rather they simply try to catch their breath.
Some of the scenes are familiar to New Yorkers but might be new to viewers outside the city. The massive blood drives at all city hospitals led to an enormous outpouring of donations. Streams of evacuees trudge across the Brooklyn Bridge, all forms of mass transit completely suspended. Men of all shapes and sizes help to hammer wood boards into makeshift stretchers in the hours when it was thought that thousands of wounded would need help. Tremendous amounts of supplies are gathered for rescue and recovery workers. The outpouring of assistance is astonishing.
In one particularly raw segment one of the filmmakers documents an hour-long incident that begins with a chalk-written slogan on the ground "The American flag propagates violence" which leads to a huge argument, followed by tearful confusion and finally hugs and understanding. Anyone who spent time at the innumerable shrines that sprang up throughout the city experienced similar conflicts.
One of the most high profile documentaries to be released on DVD so far is 9/11, the piece started by French brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet to follow rookie firefighter Tony Benetakos through his first year on the force. This piece looks at the tragedy from the perspective of the firefighters whose valiant effort to put out the fires in the towers cost many of them their lives but who, in the process, saved tens of thousands. 9/11 spends a good deal of time in the firehouse with the companies of Engine 7 and Ladder 1. This film, unlike the other two, features extended sequences still filmed in the pre-9/11 world that in retrospect seems so much simpler. The firemen engage in all their usual pranks, lightly hazing young Tony and cooking up monstrous feasts.
Once the planes hit, however, the tone of 9/11 changes completely. The Naudet brothers were the only known filmmakers to capture the first plane striking the north tower and from that moment on the film becomes a furiously tense journey into the lobby of the north tower where the first emergency command post was established. Seeing the inner workings of the emergency personnel is both fascinating and horrific.
Yet another viewpoint is covered to completely devastating effect in James Ronald Whitney's Telling Nicholas. Whitney, who needed to evacuate his home near the World Trade Center, documented the days after the attack in the household of Michele Lanza, a Staten Island woman who never came home. The film depicts the raw, uncensored emotions among her family and neighbors and centers around the impossible task of explaining to her young son Nicholas that his mommy is gone. Like 9/11, Telling Nicholas is a film that can at times be extremely difficult to watch. But even more than the Naudet brothers film, Telling Nicholas pulls no punches. Whitney refuses to take any easy paths and confronts all of his subjects' fears, prejudices, and bitternesses head on.
There is an honesty that all of these films share, from WTC Uncut's focused presentation to 7 Days in September's multi-voiced approach, to 9/11's proximity to the attacks, to Telling Nicholas' pure unadulterated agony. Considering the impulse to document, categorize and broadcast September 11th into television oblivion it's perhaps a testament to the power of the stories on display that so many of the films produced on the matter have been so worthwhile. Most have the rough, hand-held appearance of amateur home-movie-making, but were actually shot under the most adverse of conditions. When the stakes are high and either the violence or the emotions make it difficult to go on, perhaps only those with the true imperative to record history in an honest, meaningful way can keep their cameras shouldered. These films may not truly explain the rationale behind what happened; The sick truth is that there is really no real explanation. There was no reason for nearly 3000 innocent victims to have been taken by mindless hoodlums. What was learned, however, and what these films show so well, was just how strong average people can be when it really counts.
WTC Uncut is available from Here is New York and will screen on September 10th at the New York Historical Society and September 11th at the American Museum of the Moving Image. 7 Days in September screens at the Boston Film Festival on September 11th, the New York Historical Society on September 13th and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC on September 17th. It is also playing in New York at the Union Square UA Theater, the UA at 64th and 2nd and the Loews E-Walk in Times Square. 9/11 is widely available on DVD and will screen on CBS on September 11th. Telling Nicholas will be broadcast on various HBO networks on September 11th and on HBO 2 on September 15.
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