Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, filmmaker Jim Whitaker attended the wedding of a fellow Georgetown University alumnus in New York and noticed a cluster of friends in a corner, all of whom worked on Wall Street. They were crying, still grappling with the grievous events that had transpired just weeks before.
The next morning, Whitaker told his wife he wanted to visit Ground Zero. “I went down there and was looking at the debris and feeling all this anxiety and smelling the smells of the site,” Whitaker recalled in a telephone conversation from his home in Los Angeles.
“And I started to see people walking around the site. Most of them were wearing masks. And I just thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to get through this somehow, and this place is going to be very different.’ I felt an upswell of hope in that moment. And it just gave me the idea of trying to figure out how to bring an audience from that place of despair and anxiety to a place of hope,” he said.
Whitaker’s idea that day was to place time-lapse cameras around Ground Zero, each of which would take a frame of film every five minutes. Miraculously, considering the politics and jurisdictional jockeying that have surrounded the real estate around the former World Trade Center, Whitaker was able to install those cameras, 14 in all. For the past 10 years, in dazzling 35mm texture and clarity, the cameras have captured the dynamic of devastation and re-building that has defined the trade center site.
Whitaker has edited some of that material to create “Rebirth,” which opens at the West End Cinema on Sept. 9. The film combines footage that captures Ground Zero as an empty pit and, eventually, a busy construction zone. And it intersperses interviews with five survivors of the attacks, who Whitaker interviewed over seven years. What began as a historical record of Ground Zero ended up being a gripping, intimate portrait of the human toll of the defining event of the young 21st century.
While he was producing “Rebirth,” Whitaker followed nine subjects, five of whom ended up in the final film: Tanya, Tim and Brian each lost a loved one who was a firefighter; teenager Nick’s late mother had worked in the financial industry in one of the towers; and Ling worked at the New York State Tax Department and suffered horrific burns and excruciating medical treatments after escaping the 78th floor of the south tower.
(The participants aren’t named in “Rebirth,” Whitaker said, because “I felt that if I put up the name, it would automatically create a [sense] that you’re watching them and their life. I wanted viewers to fall into the narrative of their lives in a way that they could relate to it themselves.”)
As the years go by, each participant undertakes a wrenching journey from numb grief through survivor’s guilt, anger, hopelessness and at least one diagnosed case of post-traumatic stress disorder. But although the subjects are markedly different in their backgrounds and stories, in 2006 each begins a subtle emotional shift from unresolved loss toward acceptance and tentative optimism.