Each September a heart-wrenching ritual is repeated.
At exactly 8:46 a.m. ET in New York, thousands of Americans stand in silence to remember the lives lost when a hijacked American Airlines Boeing 767 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Approximately 16 minutes later, a second plane would slam into the World Trade Center’s south tower.
It’s near impossible to look at the events that transpired in September 2001 and not to recognize that 9/11 was one of the seminal moments in our past that has had an absolute and continuous influence on how we live today.
In the years since New York and America at large came under attack there have been more than 30 feature-length or television documentaries recounting the event in detail. The 20th anniversary in September 2021 will be no different.
“History is often told through events, but I think often events are just catalysts for what comes next and that’s really the interesting part,” says Bill Gardner (pictured top right), VP of programming and development at PBS, during a panel at the 2020 Connected Edition of Sunny Side of the Doc.
“What was more interesting to me was what internationally happened after that,” he notes. “We’re still feeling the effects of 9/11.”
That notion carried into an idea fleshed out over lunch and dinners in La Rochelle last summer. At its core, the concept had research producers track down 108 women who were carrying a child when the towers fell but lost a partner or husband.
A co-development project between American pubcaster PBS, ARTE France, the UK’s Channel 4 and London studio Arrow Pictures, Generation 9/11 will “spotlight the children whose lives have been defined by September 11 by the loss of the father they never knew,” explains John Smithson (bottom right), creative director at Arrow Pictures.
Still in development, the project will document what’s happened to the children – all of whom are coming up on 19 and 20 – and their families in the 20 years following al-Qaeda’s assault.
“What John has done is he’s framed a project that is simultaneously particular in its specifics – you have real kids that can be used as a lens to look at the world much broader than just their particular story,” adds Tom Koch (bottom left), VP of PBS International.
For Fatima Salaria (top left), head of specialist factual at Channel 4, the attraction to the idea was two-fold. First and foremost was that the project felt future facing and that it wouldn’t simply rehash the historical events of that fateful day in New York.
“The other thing that really resonated with me is about relationships,” she says.
“We still have the editorial ambition to make these amazing programs,” Salaria continues. “We know we have to do them in partnership now, in a patchwork of financing … because our ambition is still there to still make these stories. If working together like this and sharing an editorial ambition is the way forward, then we’d commit to that.”
Throughout the development process for Generation 9/11, ARTE France’s Mark Edwards (bottom middle), commissioning editor of international copros, wanted to test how “international this story could be” so that the film could work for many different audiences.
PBS’s Gardner shares a similar sentiment, stating that while the damage may have happened to American citizens on American soil, it was a global event.
“It’s really important for an American audience to recognize that; it wasn’t just here,” he says.
As a result, the film will focus on the personal stories of several diverse characters in order to speak to the broader audience.
“The real interest for us in doing these co-developments is we’re testing ideas and we’re seeing what will work for our audiences,” Edwards states, “but we want the films to have the longest life and to raise the most means to work together.”
Because the project is backed by three important and equal partners, the creative team was afforded the opportunity to acquire a “really good producer, director and assistant producer to spend nearly 20-odd weeks just finding out who these 108 women were who had the children,” explains Smithson.
The team of research producers ultimately reached out to 80 women in total. From there, the team whittled the list down to 30, which will be further cut down to the top 15 candidates.
“We’re seeking to cast a net as widely as possible to get all sorts of people whose fathers were in the emergency services – the daughter of a fireman – people who were working in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, people from all sorts of diverse backgrounds across America and the world beyond,” notes Smithson.
He adds that having a proper development period with all three broadcasters contributing provided the team with the resources to have time to find the stories.
“I think producers need to keep that ambition – we need to be as ambitious as possible,” says Edwards. “Thinking outside the box is important. In many ways this film is atypical for a history film – it’s not our standard treatment of history.”
“You have to think beyond what the event is,” adds Koch. “The event on its face may not simply be what we want to know, so while this [project] is about 9/11, it really isn’t. It’s not about the day – it’s about the consequences of that day and what’s transpired since.”
Generation 9/11 will be delivered prior to the 20th anniversary of September 11 as a two-hour film, with cuts available to broadcasters in a 2 x 60-minute package as well.
Josette D. Normandeau (middle top), president and producer of Quebec’s Ideacom International, served as moderator on the session.