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.
Whitaker, who lost his mother just six months before 9/11, recognized the change as he was conducting the interviews, which always took place on or around the anniversary of the attacks. “I had said to myself [that] the film will announce its own ending, and I promised myself I wouldn’t try to impose when it was going to end. That one year in particular, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re in another place right now,’ ” Whitaker recalled. “It’s just a matter of time when the film will be over, because they will have emerged to a different place from where they are now. What was remarkable was that it felt like it was happening almost en masse, which was really curious.”
“Rebirth,” which will have a limited theatrical run before airing on Showtime on Sept. 11, had its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, where Whitaker and fellow Georgetown alums Mike Cahill, Zal Batmangli and Brit Marling made their alma mater look like the USC of the East Coast. Like Cahill and Marling, Whitaker studied economics at Georgetown, where he graduated in 1990. But his passion for film was sparked even closer to home: in Baltimore, to be exact, where in 1987 he worked on the set of “Hairspray” for his cousin, John Waters. (Waters’s mother is the sister of Whitaker’s father, former Nixon administration official John C. Whitaker; Jim and his four brothers grew up in Bethesda.)
“I’ll never forget it,” Whitaker said of working at a craft services job on “Hairspray” for no pay. “The first day I went to the set, I literally thought, ‘Oh, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’ It was as clear as day.”
After graduating, Whitaker went to work for the local production company Hillman and Carr, which specializes in making films for museums. He also made “Loaded,” an anti-drunk driving public service announcement. In 1993 he went to Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment as an intern; in less than 10 years he was made president of motion pictures at the company, where he executive produced such films as “American Gangster,” “Changeling” and “Robin Hood.”
Having left Imagine to make “Rebirth,” Whitaker has now returned to his Hollywood career heading Whitaker Productions. He’s just finishing up producing Peter Hedges’ “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” for Disney.
But what he started with “Rebirth” is anything but finished: As part of an ongoing nonprofit endeavor called Project Rebirth, Whitaker will create 15-minute profiles of all nine subjects of the film — including the four who aren’t in the final version— and those profiles will be shown at the museum at Ground Zero.
“Rebirth” is being shown to first responders as a teaching tool about trauma and recovery. And Whitaker’s original 14 cameras are still taking their five-minute snapshots, which will eventually become an installation at the museum and will be preserved at the Library of Congress.
Like the moment when Whitaker knew his film could end on a note of healing and renewal, he said he’ll know when it’s time to pack up and leave Ground Zero. “It’ll probably [be in] 2015,” he said matter-of-factly. “There will be a ceremony; they will cut a ribbon and we’ll stop the cameras.”