Using the 9/11 Documentary “Rebirth” To Repair Lives

The documentary Rebirth begins with a sound familiar to New Yorkers. It’s the audio theme for the “all news all the time” radio station 1010 WINS.  The temperature for the city on September 11, primary day, is given.  Everything sounds normal—until the soundtrack shifts to sound bites from an unfolding news story of an unimaginable magnitude. An announcer states, “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.”  A woman’s voice says in disbelief, “Oh my God, the building fell.”  There is an image of papers floating downward through an ash-filled sky.

Director Jim Whitaker has fashioned a film that is both an oral history and a meditation on healing.  It is virtually a primer on grief and its shifting stages.

The production makes extensive use of time-lapsed photography, via fourteen cameras sited in strategic locations around the World Trade Center site. Captured are multi-angle views of construction in progress 24 hours a day.  This sets up a juxtaposition and visual parallel of the site’s devastation and reconstruction—with the personal stories of loss, rebuilding, and restoration of spirit.

Whitaker, previously an executive at Imagine Entertainment, came to the project almost inadvertently.  A visit to Ground Zero a month after the attacks led him to the belief that there needed to be a specific approach to an account of what had transpired.  Having lost his mother six months prior, he was also experiencing his own issues with the bereavement process.

Five individuals, directly impacted by 9/11, openly share their feelings on a yearly basis from 2002-2009. The viewer follows them in their evolution from overwhelming pain, through grappling with the tremendous shifts in their mental transformations.  In the case of Ling, who was severely burned, her physical adjustments are central to her journey.

There are no interviewer’s questions heard. The participants, positioned against a simple black background, relate their feelings and evolving insights.  Home videos and photos are intercut with their testimonies, creating a collage of their memories.  The original score, written by Philip Glass, develops an aural background balanced between anxiety and tranquility, stasis and continuity.

As the subjects develop a relationship and rapport with Whitaker, the viewer becomes intimately invested in each of their struggles to make sense out of what has happened to them.  Their testimony bears witness to the human effort to understand relationships, love, pain, and psychological ambivalence.  Personal philosophies shift, as they each endeavor to emerge from the ashes of the phoenix.  A consistent theme is the ambivalence of being caught between the desire to move forward and a need to stay connected to the past.  Tanya, who lost her fiancé, a New York City First Responder, explains it as, “Letting go without letting go.”  Later, despite the new beginnings she has been able to forge, she reveals, “The truth is, you don’t move on.  Something is always there.”  However, she notes, “The grief is very private now.”

Anger, brokenness, survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and hopelessness about lives previously “well-planned” are all grist for introspection. Midway through, Brian, a New York City construction worker whose youngest brother, a firefighter, died when the towers collapsed, says, “I don’t think I’ve started to heal yet.  I think I have a ways to go.”  By 2007, Nick, recovering slowly from the death of his mother, who worked on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center, can say that he has “let go of the anger and terror of that day.”  He will work through an estrangement from his father, who remarried a close friend of his mother.

In 2009, Tim, a firefighter on the scene who suffered when his best friend and colleague died in World Trade Center One, admits to the exhaustion of holding on to the sorrow.  “I am just done with it,” he says.  “I can’t live there.  It’s making me tired.  I’m happy to be alive.”  That same year Tanya accepts, “Life has obviously moved forward, and I have to move with it.”  Giving herself permission to live in the present with a husband and two children she acknowledges, “I have to let myself off the hook.”  However, the push-pull dynamic between “moving on” and the “something that is always there” remains a subtext.

Ling, enduring forty operations in eight years, is not just the film’s core indomitable spirit, but also the physical metaphor for the emotional scarring that has taken place.  Where previously a life overtaken and ruled by doctors visits had made her “feel useless,” she reaches a place where she can reflect, “It happened, but I’m still alive.”

An integral part of the film’s genesis was the development of Project Rebirth.  As specified during the end credits, all proceeds from the documentary will go to “help first responders and other support communities that are impacted by trauma and future disasters.”  Included in the mission of the Project Rebirth Center will be “to develop and provide new multi-media tools to aid the therapists, academics, First Responders and others working with people recovering from disasters and violent conflict, as they confront the trauma of the past and build new futures.”  Whitaker has remarked that he sees the movie as a vehicle to raise the inquiry, “How can we best repair the many lives unraveled by war, conflict and disaster across the globe?”

There were countless indelible and resonant images in Rebirth.  However one that was particularly evocative was the video showing Nick delivering a eulogy for his mother, when a baby sparrow alighted on his head.  The bird allowed itself to be held by him briefly before it flew away.

It was a simple but powerful symbol.

The film will premiere on Showtime on September 11, 2011 at 9:00 EST, with repeated showings throughout September.

This article originally appeared on the website cultureID.

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