the world watched in horror as terrorist hijackers crashed two commercial airplanes into the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon; a fourth plane plummeted to its destruction in a Pennsylvania field, short of its target thanks to the exceptional valor of its passengers. Thousands died that day as a direct result of these attacks.
Since then, we have searched for answers and explanations, anything that could help make sense of such senseless acts. Documentary filmmakers around the globe responded by picking up their cameras; some produced the best films of their careers. In this special edition of On the Slate, RealScreen recognizes some of these projects, many of which will air this month.
When tragedies occur, religion is one of the first places people look for answers. Some are able to find solace in their belief, while others feel disillusioned and turn from it. In Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, a two-hour special for PBS’ ‘Frontline’, filmmaker Helen Whitney considers the spiritual fallout from September 11.
Retired firefighter Bernie Heeran still has a firm belief in God, despite the loss of his son Charlie, an employee with Cantor Fitzgerald who died in the World Trade Center. But for Marian Fontana, whose husband was one of the 343 firefighters killed while trying to save others, the tragedy made her feel as though God had abandoned her. Columbia University English professor Andrew Delbanco, an agnostic, is not sure about the existence of God, but he is convinced we experienced evil that day.
The program also discusses the role religion played in the attacks. Among the religious leaders and scholars who weigh in on the subject are Rabbi Brad Hirschfield; Khaled Abou El Fadl, a UCLA professor of Islamic Law; Monsignor Lorenso Albacete; and Lutheran Reverand David Benke, who was accused of heresy and suspended from his post for taking part in an interfaith prayer service shortly after September 11.
Faith and Doubt is a coproduction between Boston’s WGBH and New York-based Helen Whitney Productions. The program, which carries a budget in the US$600,000 to $800,000 range, airs on ‘Frontline’ September 3 and again on September 11.
The issue of how and where the 9/11 terrorists entered North America struck a sensitive chord with the U.S.’s northern neighbor. The Undefended Border, a 3 x 60-minute series from Toronto’s White Pine Pictures, takes a closer look at Canada’s reformed immigration and enforcement policies, post-September 11.
The first episode, ‘Toughening Up’, focuses on immigration and customs officials who are under pressure to suss out terrorists among the thousands of legit refugee claimants. ‘Immigration Task Force’, the second episode, follows investigators from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Immigration Task Force as they track down an illegal immigrant: a Jamaican man charged with murder in his home country who has been living in Canada for years under a false identity. Episode three, ‘The End of the Line’, considers the bureaucratic machinery that makes deportation from Canada a slow and frustrating process.
The film was produced with TVOntario, Telefilm Canada and Rogers Telefund. Budgeted at US$350,000, it airs on tvo and regional broadcasters across Canada over three consecutive weeks, starting September 25.
7 Days in September is one of very few feature docs to date about last year’s terrorist attacks on the U.S. Produced by N.Y.’s CameraPlanet Pictures, the film focuses on the experiences of everyday New Yorkers in the week after September 11 – in Union Square, several people debate ‘the rights and contentions of democracy’; in front of a mosque, a Moslem girl is unjustly accused: ‘You people! Your leaders caused this…’
Director Steve Rosenbaum explained in a statement why he took this approach: ‘As a filmmaker, I became convinced that the best way to convey the complexity, confusion and sheer enormity of what happened was through a series of multiple perspectives that could reflect the range of experience and diversity of this unique place.’
7 Days in September, which carries a budget of US$250,000, has several screenings lined up, including the Boston Film Festival (September 11) and the New York Historical Society (September 13). CameraPlanet is in negotiations for the doc’s theatrical release.
In the first days and weeks after the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., people the world over reeled from shock, anger and fear, but it was Americans who experienced those feelings most acutely. After the first wave of emotions receded, however, how did the residents of the world’s most powerful nation fare?
United We Stand looks in on the U.S. exactly two months after 9/11 – Veterans’ Day. An occasion for reflection, the day of remembrance took on even more significance in 2001. In this 52-minute film, produced by Paris-based Doc en Stock, director Daniel Leconte focuses on the point last year when the U.S. was starting to recover, despite the continued threats of another terrorist attack.
Students, postal workers and Red Cross volunteers shared their opinions, along with personalities such as ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, on the short and long-term implications of September 11. Through them, United We Stand offers a snapshot of America’s mood at a poignant moment.
A copro with France’s ARTE, the doc first aired on that channel on December 11, 2001. It has since been picked up by Metro TV, a New York cable channel, which will air it September 11. United We Stand was made for about US$293,000.
While many international broadcasters opted to buy 9/11-anniversary programs produced by American filmmakers, a few also undertook projects of their own. One such broadcaster is Germany’s ZDF Enterprises.
Traces of Fear: Travels Through a Changed America, directed by Eberhard Piltz, depicts how U.S. citizens across the country have been coping since the terrorist attacks. In a small Kansas community, fear and shock still resonate a year later, despite the physical distance from the targets. In North Miami, Florida, a group of volunteers patrol the streets at night for the protection of local residents. In Boston, several universities offer courses such as ‘Civil Rights under a Surveillance State’.
Budgeted at around US$70,000, the half-hour doc is slated to air on September 6.
The D.C. story
Pre-September 11, it would have been difficult to imagine any news bigger than a plane crashing into the Pentagon. But next to the collapse of the Twin Towers, all other news became secondary. With Minute By Minute: Attack on the Pentagon, Chicago, U.S.-based Towers Productions offers a detailed account of this lesser-reported tragedy.
It began at 9:37a.m., when American Airlines flight 77 tore through the Pentagon’s southern face, leaving a 70-foot gash. All 64 passengers on the plane died. Inside the U.S. defense headquarters, military and civilian personnel alike were thrown into chaos and scrambled for safety. Lieutenant Colonel Marilyn Wills lead two co-workers through the smoke to a window; Army Specialist April Gallop frantically searched for her two-month-old son, whom she had brought in that day to register for daycare; Army Lieutenant Colonel Ted Anderson made it out, but crawled back in to save others.
Budgeted at about US$200,000, Attack on the Pentagon is an hour long. The program premieres on A&E on September 4.
Healing from the inside out
Somewhere inside every individual is a reserve of strength that makes recovery from even the most difficult ordeals possible. The trick is how to tap into that reserve. In Aftermath: The Road to Resilience, filmmakers Jason Williams and Caroline Anstey introduce six people – residents of the same Brooklyn city block – who confronted great hardship, but did not allow it to weaken them.
There is Dena Smegala, whose firefighter husband died on September 11; Chris Torres, who survived the attacks on the World Trade Center (a stroke of luck kept him from his office that morning) and is left wondering why; Jason Albin, a teacher who specializes in educating autistic children; Paula Pierce and her daughter Tamara, who have stuck together since Paula overcame drug addiction; and Julian Jackson, who lost his partner of 52 years in a gas explosion that destroyed his home 14 months before 9/11. In each instance, the strength of the human spirit is exemplified.
Aftermath is a one-hour doc by Takoma Park, U.S.-based JWM Productions, with Discovery Health and the American Psychological Association. The film, which carries a budget in the US$300,000 to $400,00 range, aired on Discovery Health on August 29 and will be rebroadcast on September 11.
Violence, in the name of…
Age of Terror is a four-part series addressing a frightening reality: the rise of international terrorism. From the 1946 bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel by Jewish nationalists – an early example of modern terrorism – to the events of September 11, using violent and intimidating methods has sadly remained the practice of certain groups.
Each one-hour episode examines ‘a different aspect of terrorist activity from the perspective of the terrorists themselves.’ Featured are nationalist ‘freedom fighters,’ ideological revolutionaries, religious fundamentalists and state-sponsored terrorists.
Director Jon Blair (Anne Frank Remembered) filmed on four continents and secured interviews with more than 30 bombers, hijackers and terrorist leaders, including members of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the IRA and South Africa’s ANC. He also spoke with several victims of terrorism, such as Mustapha Ghemati, an activist who survived torture by the French Colonial Army in Algeria.
Age of Terror was produced by London, U.K.-based 3BM Television for Discovery Networks International. Budgeted at US$1.2 million, the series screened at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival on August 24 and premiered in the U.K. on the Discovery Channel on August 28. It will air in more than 150 countries as part of Discovery’s 9/11 anniversary programming.
The irony of hindsight
The Man Who Knew is the story of John O’Neill. An FBI agent, O’Neill had investigated the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa and the USS Cole in Yemen, and at one time was the FBI’s top counter-terrorism agent. Despite O’Neill’s experience, his advice on one point was consistently ignored: to kill Osama bin Laden before Al Qaeda attacks the U.S.
O’Neill had carefully and relentlessly gathered information about bin Laden and the global Islamic fundamentalist terrorist network. But the bureaucracy, perhaps put off by O’Neill’s fervor, never heeded his warnings. After years at the helm of the FBI’s counter-terrorism division, O’Neill was forced out of his post. Just weeks before September 11, he accepted a job in the private sector – as director of security at the World Trade Center. He died the morning the planes crashed into the Twin Towers.
The 90-minute copro between wgbh and the Kirk Documentary Group of Brookline, U.S., has a budget in the US$500,000 to $600,000 range. It airs on ‘Frontline’ on October 3.
Beyond the Call of Duty
Among the programs made about September 11, two stand apart from the rest: 9/11 and In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01.
9/11 is a two-hour program based on 180 hours of footage captured by New York-based brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet. The filmmakers’ access to the World Trade Center on the fateful day was a fluke – they had been filming a doc about a rookie fireman stationed close to the Twin Towers since June 2001 and followed him when the call came to head out on September 11. Among the images recorded are a rare shot of the first plane crashing into the North Tower and the scene inside that tower when the South Tower collapsed.
9/11 originally aired on U.S. network CBS on March 10 and is scheduled for rebroadcast on September 8. (The final version was achieved with the help of five CBS editors.) Several international broadcasters have also licensed the doc, including the BBC, Germany’s ARD, TV2 Denmark, TV New Zealand, Italy’s RAI, France 2 and NTV in Japan.
In Memoriam is a one-hour special produced by Brad Grey Pictures and HBO that chronicles the chaos of September 11 in NYC, as experienced by then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani and several other New Yorkers. The program draws on footage from 16 news organizations and more than 115 amateur and professional videographers and photographers – they were among the hundreds who responded to a public request from HBO’s doc division last December for audio and visual contributions to the project. The filmmakers also secured unprecedented access to New York’s City Hall and the mayor’s staff.
HBO originally broadcast the doc on May 26 and will air it again on September 11. As with 9/11, international broadcasters lined up to license In Memoriam. They include Germany’s ZDF, TV2 Denmark, Canada’s Life Network and Australia’s Nine Network.
Also from HBO comes ‘Visions from Ground Zero’, a series of indie-made short docs, such as From the Ashes – 10 Artists, by Deborah Shaffer, and WTC: The First 24 Hours, by Etienne Sauret. These shows will air September 11 on HBO’s ‘Cinemax Reel Life’.