We all remember where we were and what we were doing and how we felt. I emailed my college kids to tell them that fate had skipped a generation and they now had their Pearl Harbor - I feared that the world might be spun into war as had happened in 1914.
A moving document of the shocking banality of horror, 7 Days in September is a video documentary that chronicles the morning of 9/11/01 and the first week of reaction in New York City. It's covered by a roundup of 22 "participating filmmakers" (23 if you count the director's 11 year-old son) who either videotaped the attack on the World Trade center or documented events during the week following. The result is a little patchy and sometimes veers toward making emotional pronouncements, but it does record the enormity of the catastrophe and the idealistic response on the streets of the city.
It's common for any disaster from a flood to an earthquake to be called a war zone, but 9.11 was something new. It was nothing less than a Super Crime, the kind we've been fantasizing about in disaster spectacles and apocalyptic science fiction for decades. It was committed by a conspiracy of fanatics striking back at the nation they blame for the ills of the third world, and instead of an ordinary mass slaying or suicide bomb, their plan played out as the kind of malevolently fiendish caper that we associate with fictional archcriminals like Dr. Mabuse or Lex Luthor. Four planes hijacked (more were planned) and three successfully hurled at symbolic targets. The Pentagon makes sense, as does the White House, another presumed target. And in New York, the center of American economic strength was represented by the World Trade Center towers.
Only one of the jerkily-aimed cameras catches the impact of one of the planes, the second one that slices into the building completely in a fraction of a second (how fast was it going? 300 mph? 500 mph?) and explodes out the other side in a fireball. The strongest images here are the earliest, and not because they contain spectacular scenes of destruction - only one victim is shown falling and the quality of the DVCam video isn't always the best. But we get the verbal reactions - some of them curses - of people watching in utter disbelief. If dragons had descended from the sky, the reaction couldn't have been any more terrifying.
Since the towers are visible from twenty and thirty miles away, some of the video is taken from backyards in Brooklyn and across the Hudson in New Jersey. Crowds watch from a turnpike bridge half a county away, their cars stopped in the middle of lanes. In lower Manhattan there's shock and panic - with thousands staring up as if watching King Kong clutching their own children in his hand. For everyone knew that the towers normally held tens of thousands of people, ordinary people. How many were already dead? How many soon would be? The feeling of helplessness could be felt in the gut. It was as if the Titanic were sinking before their eyes, in the center of New York City.
Few in the streets had a clear picture of what was going on. One plane striking a building might be an accident but the second impact made deliberate attack the only explanation. We hear people repeating rumors, possibly from the broadcast media, of attacks in San Francisco and elsewhere. Commmuters emerge from the subways into streets filled with debris, without a clue as to what has occurred.
The network newscoverage of the events was scattered, spotty and after a few hours seemed to concentrate on the same 3 minutes of jaw-dropping visuals. After a week, showing the footage took on the cachet of morbidity, and the images started to be edited. Finally, the violence of the attack is seldom shown, out of respect for those who perished. Now anybody repeating the images of planes striking the towers has to have a very good non-profit reason to do so or face accusations of exploitation. This in a world where grandiose death and disaster is the weekly diet on movie screens. NYC had been decimated at least 3 times in the six years previous in Independence Day, Deep Impact and Armageddon. Images on television of disaster only blocks away (as I experienced in 1992 with the LA riots) are cause to run to the windows, batten down the hatches and start making emergency plans. Images of a disaster three thousand miles away can't help but conjure morbid analysis. Good God, what's happening to those trapped people? And the firemen, what about them? Why is NYC covered with four inches of gray powder? Tons and tons and tons of drywall pulverised and blown from overhead, of course.
Taking gratuitous pictures of a car wreck can definitely be morbid activity. But on that beautiful clear September day in NYC there must have been hundreds of tourist video cameras whirring. And considering the inability to do anything else to help, recording whatever events might occur made sense.
7 Days In September organizes its footage chronologically and presents it with sit-down interviews of the camerapeople, who ranged from total amateurs to freelance professionals. The intimacy of what they record is the important part. Cops try to herd people from downtown. The collapse of the towers starts a human stampede. One filmmaker records how the clouds of noxious powder envelop everything, blotting out the sunlight so that samaritans have to help lost people find their way into building lobbies.
As the show works its way into the week afterward, it becomes more like a normal docu, with choices made of what to show. Everyone talks of the new spirit and the communal helpfulness. We see the walls filled with flyers asking about missing relatives and streets lined with crowds cheering emergency vehicles. One citizen takes it upon himself to stand on a street corner with a hand-lettered placard, shouting out which hospitals are accepting blood donations and which are not.
Near the end are some remarks by precocious children (who sound a little too primed for my taste), spontaneous prayer rallies on the streets and equally spontaneous street debates. They become outpourings of rage and emotion versus anguished calls for calm. One argument turns to emotional hugs that seem more than a little motivated by the presence of a camera ... but I wasn't there. An anti - American slogan chalked on a sidewalk becomes the focus of anger that could easily boil the crowd into a mob.
7 Days In September is mostly straight documentation and for that has to be commended. The only false step is when the lead director takes center stage (with his budding filmmaker son) to speak about what it all means to him personally. He doesn't talk about any footage he shot himself so he hasn't the "I was there and this is what I saw" rationale that we hear from the other camerapeople. He'd have done better to stay behind the scenes as most of his very good movie is free of editorial comment.
Anchor Bay/Camera Planet's DVD of 7 Days In September is a good pressing of rough-and ready material. It's all presented in 16:9 anamorphic even though it's clear that some of the footage has been reformatted from 4:3 and is cropped and fuzzier. The digital titles and credits look worse than the show, which is mostly good for quality. The audio is unusually clear, either a testament to the filmmaker's mixing skill or the general quality of the pro-sumer equipment in our hands these days.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
7 Days In September rates: