DVD Talk
Release List Coupons Shop Reviews SUBSCRIBE Forum DVD Eggs Video Games Advertise
DVD Talk
Reviews & Columns
International DVDs
All Male
Video Games

Collector Series DVDs
Easter Egg Database
DVD Talk Radio
Feature Articles

Anime Talk
The Blue Room
DVD Savant
HD Talk
Horror DVDs
Silent DVD

DVD Price Search
Customer Service #'s
RCE Info

DVDTalk Info
Review Staff
About DVD Talk
Newsletter Subscribe
Join DVD Talk Forum
DVD Talk Feeds

Search: For:

HBO's Telling Nicholas: An Honest Look at the Devastation of 9/11
Michele and Nicholas

May 9, 2002 | When I had the idea for a column centering around New York movies I was thinking of the sort of hard-boiled New York stories that most people associate with this great city. Force of Evil. Sweet Smell of Success. Dog Day Afternoon. Taxi Driver. Do the Right Thing. Unsentimental films on tough, gritty, urban issues. Still, I was unprepared for the bald emotion on display in James Ronald Whitney's astonishing Telling Nicholas, a documentary that displays such raw pain it's almost unbearable.

The subject seems deceptively obvious but still hard to imagine filming: Two days after the cataclysmic terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Whitney visited a Staten Island family that had lost a loved one. Over a period of ten days Whitney taped their denial, their pain, and their suffering. The film centers around the family's struggle with how and when to tell seven year old Nicholas that his mother is never coming home. Incredibly much of this played out with complete candor in front of Whitney's lens.

I read this basic synopsis before heading up to the premiere screening of the final cut of the film at HBO's 42nd street headquarters. Standing around the reception room with its view of the Empire State Building, anticipating a film that I knew would contain numerous shots of the twin towers seemed almost weird. Still, it served as a reminder of the enormous effect that September 11th had on the architecture of New York. As everyone knows, the skyline changed that day, leaving a hole that anyone who had set their eyes on the city during the last quarter century could clearly see. But Whitney's focus wasn't on the enormous physical and structural damage, but rather on intimate personal loss. "It's very easy to focus on the obvious," he explained the day after the screening, "that the structures are missing. It's far more difficult to focus on the human element and this movie does. At the end of day it's about missing fathers and sons, mothers and daughters."

James Ronald Whitney at the screening
James Ronald Whitney at the premiere
But when he first picked up his camera he didn't have a specific game plan of how to proceed. Having previously made films that concentrated on how young people deal with complex emotional issues, like the painful, autobiographical Just, Melvin, he at least had a basic direction. "I knew immediately that the focus of the film would be centered around issues regarding children, because I couldn't get the pictures out of my head of the little kids with their parents on the flyers that surrounded my neighborhood," he told me. "And I also wondered if anybody knew how to tell a kid that mommy is dead or daddy is dead."

There was a personal reason to try to view the tragedy through the lives of others as well. "When I was nine my father ran off and instead of thinking 'Wow, my father just ran off with my mom's best friend,' I kept thinking 'I gotta make sure my mom's ok.' The same situation happened here. It was easier to try to help these families and focus on their pain."

His journey eventually introduced him to real people with painful stories, but it still started with two buildings collapsing. Right from the start Whitney shows that he intends to pull no punches. The film repeatedly employs shots of the towers in flames and mid collapse - all shot by Whitney's own camera - as well as one shot of a body falling nearly a hundred stories. The images are too disturbing to be summarized and no amount of repetition robs them of their power. Whitney, who's been somewhat critical of CBS for shying away from some of the more visceral footage shot by brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet for their piece 9/11, is not one to sugarcoat his work. "I felt I owed that sort of honesty to the families," he declared.

Michele and Nicholas
Michele and Nicholas
Displaced (Whitney's apartment lay in the frozen zone after the attack and he had to vacate) and without any work to do (his office was directly next to the towers and was heavily damaged) Whitney found himself searching the patchwork of "missing" flyers posted all over the city. During a scan of the faces he discovered friends and acquaintances Scott Sabir, Clara Hernandez, and Gabby Waisman, all listed as missing at the time and known to have died since. He also noticed a photo of a woman named Michele Lanza and her young son Nicholas and immediately felt the bond between the two. He felt he had to find out their story.

After a phone call he headed to their Staten Island home and found himself quickly enmeshed in their family's life. Michele's parents Al and Ethel shared their modest Tottenville home with their daughters Susan and Cindy as well as Cindy's husband Dominick and their two young daughters. Michele and Nicholas lived right down the street since she moved up from Virginia where she had separated from husband Bobby. As the family sat around trying out different theories on where Michele was and who to blame for this devastation, they quickly became complex, individual personalities all mixed up with the emotions and confusion of those difficult days. Hearing their theories on Islam and Muslim New Yorkers was like having our own immediate, shell-shocked judgments reflected back; it was a raw time and everyone said things that were based more on pure emotion and confusion than thoughtfulness and understanding.

After the screening I spoke with Al, Nicholas' grandfather and Michele's father, who made a strong impression in the film. He was thankful that audiences had the opportunity to see an honest depiction of what his family went through, even if the finished film was the furthest thing from his mind at the time. "We weren't thinking about [the camera]. We were concerned about our daughter," he explained. "When you have a child, you'd cut off your arm for that child. You grow up with them and they grow up with you. There is always that close bond." In his own way Nicholas expressed this feeling in the film as well. At one point he heartbreakingly states "If my mommy had an injury, I would have an injury, too."

Shabbir, Thanbir, and Jeba Ahmed
Shabbir, Thanbir, and Jeba Ahmed
After spending some time with Michele's family, Whitney introduced a different family altogether: A Muslim family from Bangladesh, whose patriarch Shabbir Ahmed was a waiter at Windows on the World, the famed restaurant at the top of tower one. Their pain was just as great but it seemed mixed with the knowledge that many of their neighbors would blame them in part for what happened. Thanbir, the sixteen year old son, in particular showed a brave face, eloquently memorializing his father and hoping for fair treatment for his family. Whitney's attempt at even-handedness could have come off as manipulative but his subtle handling of this tough subject matter coupled with the quiet pride and strength of the Ahmed family helped this sequence achieve real compassion.

In fact, when I spoke with Thanbir he seemed equally impressed with his family's bravery. "Right after the attack we understood that there would be cameras and reporters coming to the house," the high school student told me. "We expected it. The family reacted quite amazingly. I expected them to be shy, but they were candid and outgoing."

By the time Whitney shot the Ahmed family they seemed to have a strong grasp on the truth: That Shabbir wasn't coming home. Michele's family wasn't quite so far along in their grieving process. In fact, for most of the ten days that Whitney had his camera on the family they still held out hope that Michele would return. It wasn't until Bobby finally told Nicholas that that his mother had died that it became fully real for the rest of the family. According to Whitney, "The reason is that Dr. Gilda [a noted therapist and friend of the filmmaker's] explained to Ethel that Robert was finally going to tell Nicholas and you must not for the well-being of the child express some notion of a miracle, that you're still hoping that Michele will walk through that door because that conflict would possibly prove detrimental. Fortunately the family took her advice and from that point on they never referred to her in present tense."

Audience members discuss Telling Nicholas
Audience members discuss Telling Nicholas
There were plenty of difficult sequences: The playing of the last message that a panicked Michele left on her sister's answering machine disturbed the still hopeful family. Ethel passed out when she saw a World Trade Center postcard on Michele's desk. A conversation about who should take care of Nicholas turned ugly. But the emotional centerpiece of the film comes when Bobby finally sits down with his son and tries to explain that his mother is dead. Nicholas reacts in an incredible way that manages to be strong and vulnerable at the same time. He pats his father on the back and alternates between tears and inquisitiveness. It is to Whitney's credit that this scene, shot from a distance, doesn't feel exploitative. It is in fact a very effective way for those who haven't been able to express their own sense of grief to understand the process vicariously.

Although Whitney viewed the families from a far more intimate vantage point than even the most emotionally engaged audience ever will, he saw that scene as the moment that the film built towards. "No one's ever heard a child's reaction in real time like that and it's as comforting as it is discomforting to observe his defense mechanisms kick-in." Whitney described the moment that Nicholas asked his grieving father if they could go out the next day and get him a new mommy as "the most painful thing for a family to hear because it almost implies that they are fairly easy to replace when in fact the child is simply attempting to survive emotionally and doesn't know how he can do that without a mommy. He's in pain and he doesn't want to be in pain. All he cares about is a band-aid right then. He doesn't think as far as surgery." This reaction of Nicholas', which was part of one of the most complex emotional reactions ever caught on video, was so raw that Whitney didn't even describe it as honest. "Honesty implies some control over thought and I don't think there's any control going on there. It's just streaming consciousness."

Al and Nicholas
Al and Nicholas
With a series of festival screenings on the horizon (including the Tribeca Film Festival, which will be covered in the next Cinema Gotham), Whitney was glad to see the film having a cathartic effect for audiences. "One of the most amazing things to me is the presence of Michele Lanza when I listen to the family talk about her life and watch her in archival footage. It's incredible to see how alive she was and even more incredible to see, even in her absence, how impactful she is on everyone who has watched this film. Amazingly, in a bittersweet way that has to bring some solace to the family. They understand that it's a very important film."

There is no question that they feel the film can only have a positive effect. When asked how he thought the film turned out Al wasn't even sure what to say. "I can't answer that. I lived it. And not just me but three thousand other mothers, fathers, husbands and wives."

Thanbir seemed to take some comfort in the notion that so many people at the screening were so moved by his family's story. "The fact that the majority of people there were from New York means everyone lost somebody or knew someone who lost someone and seeing the strength [the families] had helps them go on with their lives."

Telling Nicholas will have its HBO premiere on Sunday, May 12 - Mother's Day - at 10pm. A complete schedule of HBO showings is available here.

Telling Nicholas web-site
Telling Nicholas @ HBO

Click here to submit a film event or to contact CINEMA GOTHAM



New Review:

All Reviews

Special Offer

Home Release List Coupons Shop Reviews Forum Video Games Price Search Advertise
Copyright 2006 DVDTalk.com All Rights Reserved. Legal Info, Privacy Policy