A doc 10 years in the making shows rebuilding of ground zero and the stories of 9/11 survivors
There are documentaries with the power to transcend the silver screen and create lasting, perceptible change in the three-dimensional world. REBIRTH is one such film. A feature-length documentary, REBIRTH is part of a larger organization whose mission is not only to create a historic record of the rebuilding of ground zero but to examine the evolution of grief.
Project Rebirth, the organization, maintains one the largest time-lapse projects, which has chronicled the construction around the ground zero site since 2002. For the film, this footage was intercut with the stories of five people directly affected by 9/11: a survivor who managed to get out of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, a firefighter who lived through the collapse of the WTC but ended up losing his best friend, a high school student whose mother died, a woman who lost her fiancé and a construction worker who is working on the Freedom Tower despite the loss of his brother on 9/11.
Director Jim Whitaker explains the development of the project and how REBIRTH is a meditation on the individual experience of loss Whitaker began his career as a documentary filmmaker to raise money for nonprofit organizations. He wrote and directed Loaded, an award-winning public service announcement against drinking and driving in memory of a Georgetown University classmate.
Our Town Downtown: In October 2001, you visited ground zero for the first time. This visit became the launching point for the Project Rebirth organization and its time-lapse project. What struck you about ground zero when you saw it in person?
Jim Whitaker: The first was a feeling of dread and anxiety as I looked at the debris, the pile and smelled the smells of the site. I watched as a couple of people walked around the site and there was one person wearing a mask. They had this fixed look of determination on their faces. That made me focus on the debris and the fact that one day it would be gone—something else would be in its place. It gave me a sense of hope. That was the inception point: How could you bring that experience of dread, anxiety and hope to an audience?
My first thought was to literally show the rebuilding, to put cameras up for 24 hours a day and allow ground zero and the site to tell its own story.
You have worked in the entertainment industry for many years, but this is your first feature film. [Whitaker serves as the chairman and producer of Whitaker Entertainment at Walt Disney Studios.] When did the idea for the documentary film component of Project Rebirth come about?
I started my career working for a film company that made documentary films for museums. My first thought was that there probably was going to be a museum here. I had the idea of the time-lapse installation with screens surrounding the audience, and the building literally rising up around the audience. I started from a place of wanting to record the history of the site, but as time moved forward, I wanted to record the site and the people. I thought that I should find the human context [of the event].
I read that your field producer, Danielle Beverly, was integral in finding participants for the film and started with 10 interviewees. Did you quickly realize that you needed to winnow down the film to the stories of only five people?
One dropped out after the first year. I went in and edited with all nine people in the film. I would edit each person’s story down to 15- to 30-minute pieces, but intercut [with the time-lapse footage], the film was simple too long. I finally had to make the hard decision to only make it about five people. That decision was made based on where I started: ground zero. The starting place was loss. I felt as though the stories that needed to come to the fore were the ones about the most direct loss.
My mother passed away six months before 9/11. I came into this with a sense of openness and grief. 9/11 was a very different kind of traumatic loss, but how people evolve, manage and move through grief is curious. What I have learned is that it is a very individual and unique experience.
Project Rebirth includes one of the largest time-lapse projects ever undertaken, shot between roughly 2002 and 2009 in 35 mm, with 6 to 14 cameras on site. For this portion of the film, how much footage had to be edited down?
Well, for the time-lapse portion we had more than a million feet of film. The total amount of footage that we shot for the entire film was around 700 hours of film. [B]ut this has been a 10-year process. Everything kind of becomes relative with time.
What do you hope this documentary will help accomplish in a broader sense?
Brian Rafferty [chairman of Project Rebirth] has worked on finding ways to create teaching and learning tools around the film. Apparently, there has never been a record of people going through grief over this length of time. It can help prepare first responders for future events that could occur. There will be a class required of people entering the NYPD academy to see how grief looks, and the process of going through a traumatic experience.
[Since 2007, Project Rebirth has partnered with Georgetown University and Columbia University to create coursework drawn from the film in the fields of human development, psychology, social work and education.]
This film will be part of the permanent installation at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. What other footage will be part of the exhibit?
The film will play in a regular flow within the museum—in addition, we created what we call “pods,” 10 to 15 minutes versions of each participant’s story. We built the installation similarly to what I had imagined might be possible: we’ll have screens surrounding the audience to show the evolution of the site up to the present day.
REBIRTH is currently showing at the IFC Center (323 6th Ave. at West Third Street.) and will make its television debut on Showtime on Sunday, Sept. 11, at 9 p.m. To read the full version of this interview visit www.otdowntown.com
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