Following the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the programming that commemorated the occasion, Darlow Smithson Productions’ creative director, Julian Ware discusses how such shows not only solemnly mark the event, but can also challenge the boundaries of documentary television.
9/11 is a story that endlessly fascinates documentary makers and 10 years on that interest has been as strong as ever. This hunger for programming has resulted in a single event being explored on television from more perspectives than perhaps any other in recorded history.
Conspiracy theories have been cross-examined, photographs analysed, phone messages broadcast, clean-up operations documented, archive sewn together minute-by-minute and the colorful history of the Twin Towers played out through the memories of everyone from architects to tight-rope walkers. And just when you thought the subject had been thoroughly mined, another facet of the tragedy is pieced together for a viewing public, whose appetite has shown no sign of diminishing.
Darlow Smithson Productions has made more than its share of programs on one of the most sensitive of documentary subjects. The tragedy is one of those rare events, where almost everyone can remember the moment they first heard the news. I learned about it while in a doctor’s waiting room. A distressed fellow patient was shrieking into his phone, urging his stockbrokers to sell all his airline shares. In between frantic calls, he told me a plane had hit the World Trade Centre.
Less than 24 hours later, I had a fast turnaround film commissioned by Channel 4 and a director waiting with hundreds of other journalists to board a specially chartered 747, en route to the United States. But before he even had time to check his i-Visa, the U.S. had closed its air space and it was only 36 hours later, when Canada opened its airports, that the plane could finally take off.
What started in near chaos, continued in the same vein, with a scramble to rent cars and drive down over the Canadian border to New York. Then, as the director began to send his footage back to the cutting room, I recall the images that had most impact on me. It wasn’t the wrecked buildings or the gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon that stopped me in my tracks, but thousands of notes pinned up on lamp posts and doorways, by relatives searching desperately for their loved ones.
It was only then that the full scale of the human tragedy truly registered. And it is only by exploring that human dimension that these programs have become so endlessly compelling. It is a theme that has dominated the numerous 9/11 films we have been involved with at DSP over the last 10 years. And it is this same theme which garners so many accolades and awards for films on the subject. It is virtually impossible not to be moved by the human stories of those caught up in the events, the heroics of the rescuers and the anguish of the bereaved.
The most challenging film I have been involved in was working with Henry Singer on his film The Falling Man. It tackled a subject that up until then had been deemed taboo: the story of those who chose to jump, rather than succumb to the fire and smoke at the top of the Twin Towers. The film was a search to find the identity of one man captured in a series of still images as he fell to the ground.
The shocking nature of the photos meant that they had been seldom seen. Up until that point, they were destined to be airbrushed from the history of that day, on the grounds that they were simply too shocking. However, by transgressing this taboo, the film revealed a very different story that needed to be told. These images didn’t tell a story of defeat or despair, but instead of a man taking control of his own destiny: a symbolically important reminder of all those who perished, which demanded its place in the history of events.
Ten years on and the numerous programs that have aired over the past few weeks reveal that there are still countless stories to tell, which help us better understand that terrible day. The two that I was involved in for the 10th anniversary look at very different aspects of 9/11.
Janice’s Sutherland’s film, Children of 9/11 [for Channel 4, also broadcast on NBC] was filmed over the course of a year and tells the moving story of children who lost a parent in the attacks and their attempts to come to terms with the tragedy. It is another subject that challenges the boundaries of documentary television. And in doing so, it reveals a group of victims who might otherwise be forgotten. Their honest recollections of 9/11 and their often painful, but inspiring journeys in the years since, revealed a thought-provoking new dimension to the story.
James Quinn’s film, 9/11, Heroes of the 88th Floor (TLC) took a very different approach and in so doing, tells a very different story: the astonishing account of two Port Authority workers whose selfless heroism helped 77 people survive the terror attack. It is this stark contrast between the darkest and brightest sides of humanity displayed that day, which will continue to draw filmmakers to the subject.
As one of the heroes of the 88th floor says in Quinn’s film, “that day showed the worst in people, but is also brought out the best in them.” And television documentaries will continue to explore the profound divisions in human nature on 9/11 for many years to come.
Julian Ware is Creative Director at Darlow Smithson and his career in specialist factual spans four decades. Credits include Leonardo’s Dream Machines, The Last Show on Earth, The Falling Man and Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day.