After 9/11, letting go but holding on
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Sep 09, 2011
Anyone who remembers that crystalline morning may instinctively shy away from seeing "Rebirth," a documentary about people who lost loved ones or barely survived the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As the movie opens - with a chirpy 8 a.m. weather report on New York's all-news WINS radio station, whose headline story at that moment was the city's mayoral primary - a heavy feeling of dread sets in. We all know how that day ended.
But for all the grievously familiar contours of its story, "Rebirth" holds an improbable store of surprises, thanks to the deft, sensitive direction of Bethesda native Jim Whitaker. Inspired to document the rebuilding that started almost immediately at Ground Zero, Whitaker installed 14 time-lapse cameras at the site, taking five-minute snapshots of detritus, destruction and, finally, reconstruction. He also interviewed several survivors, five of whom are on camera here, every year from 2002 to 2006, and he intercuts their reflections with footage from the static cameras. With "Rebirth," Whitaker takes what could have been a maudlin, unhealthy rumination on senseless violence and suffering and creates an absorbing, albeit wrenching, testament to perseverance, healing and, as one witness puts it, the art of letting go "without letting go."
That indelible voice belongs to a young woman who lost her firefighter fiance as he rushed into one of the towers. During her first interview with Whitaker, her anguish still raw, she recalls her denial-fueled bewilderment when her fiance's colleagues arrived at her house with food. Another firefighter's best friend recalls his buddy's last words and final embrace, later facing his late friend's wife, who demands he tell her that her husband is still alive. A firefighter's brother, who immediately began helping with the rescue and recovery effort, dreams of airplane parts and human remains; seeing an old shoe can trigger an emotional spiral. A young man who lost his mother can't accept his father's new wife and gets thrown out of his house; a financial executive who suffered horrible burns undergoes dozens of excruciating surgeries while battling feelings of hopelessness.
Would it shock you to know that "Rebirth" has a happy ending? The personal journeys of these individuals are so fascinating, so singular, that to give any more details would be akin to spoiling a finely crafted thriller. Suffice it to say that Whitaker, a film executive before turning his hand to directing, has found five riveting protagonists for this story of unresolved grief and eventual redemption, their personal transformations thoroughly living up to the obliquely spiritual meanings of "Rebirth's" title. (The time-lapse material, overseen by cinematographer Thomas Lappin, has been elegantly shot on 35mm film, set to the familiar ostinato of a Philip Glass score.)
Viewers may initially be confused at the filmmaker's decision not to identify his subjects directly - even as we feel that we're beginning to know them intimately. It turns out to be a potent technique to draw viewers in to their stories, rather than hold them at a safe remove as someone else's unique experience. "Rebirth" may be organized around 9/11 and its physical and psychic aftermath, but it's about the trick everyone needs to master sooner or later: letting go without letting go.
Contains some disturbing material and subject matter.