I spent a good portion of last month tracking down documentaries that address the September 11 terrorist attacks in some way. Among them were stories about the events of the day itself, the people affected and how life has proceeded since then.
I came across tons of interesting projects developed for TV, but very few – in fact, only one – specifically made for theatrical release, and I was left wondering why. The subject is certainly big enough and important enough for the big screen. Perhaps there simply hasn’t been enough time or distance yet, as Sean Farnel, Real To Reel programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, observes in this month’s Feature Docs report. Films about the Holocaust or World War II, such as Hitler’s Secretary, have made it into festivals and cinemas, but two generations separate the topic of that discussion and the discussion itself. For some, even that isn’t long enough to make a theater viewing bearable.
Is it right to make docs about 9/11 so relatively soon afterwards? In my mind, undoubtedly yes. One of the best things about camera technology today is that it’s possible to record at the spur of the moment and communicate that immediacy to an audience. Inevitably, a handful of projects will be more exploitative than informative, but they’re likely destined for a one-broadcast fate.
Fifty years from now, for those with no memory of this time, the 9/11 films of quality and substance will lend texture and emotion to the straight facts. Audiences might then go to theaters to watch these documentaries. If Amy Hardie (author of the Docspace report) is right, an untapped wellspring of doc aficionados is just waiting for the day when non-fiction feature films regularly find their way into cinemas.
In general, I agree with Hardie that some docs deserve to be seen on a big screen, and that there is an audience for them. But, when it comes to watching 9/11 docs now, there’s no place I would rather be than curled up on my couch. I’m not ready yet to share that viewing experience with a room full of strangers, avoiding their eyes when the lights come up. TV is the medium through which I experienced that horrible day, and it’s the medium through which I will remember it.