By Natasha Samreny
“Maybe that day when I ran out of the hotel, maybe I never stopped running really. Maybe I’m running away from the hurt.”
– Firefighter Tim Brown
When I got this batch of DVDs, I moved Rebirth to the back of the stack. I like documentaries, but I wanted to feel something—a connection—to rally emotion, or savor a narrative. At least with a movie, the payoff would be immediate if it was good, or so obviously lacking in the first few scenes if it was bad, that I wouldn’t need to string my mental patience along hoping for something that would never come.
Shame on me. Don’t make the same mistake. Watch Rebirth as soon as you can, and then buy it.
The film premise is simple, but not something that was easily accomplished. Five people whose lives were intimately and forever changed by the towers falling on September 11, 2001, tell their stories. But this isn’t just an I remember where I was when it happened project. Director Jim Whitaker essentially created a “human time-lapse” image of each individual from 2002 to 2009. Beginning six months after 9/11, he sat each person down, in the same room, with the same minimal crew, and let them talk. Their stories are unbelievable, and while Whitaker and his producers obviously found some people with heartbreaking experiences to begin with, the progressive details of how their lives changed and morphed afterward are incredible.
Five lives slashed by loss and final separation: a young woman from her fiance; a highschooler from his mother; a construction worker from his brother; a firefighter from his best friend; and a woman from her physical mobility before extensive burns caught her on the way down from the top of the World Trade Center.
How does someone begin to process such a traumatic event; how do they start to heal?
Whitaker and his film team let the voices speak. They removed all barriers to hear the sound, see the faces, and observe the movements of emotions wash, pulse and circulate through the survivors’ sharing. The interviews are placed against an empty backdrop of black, simply lit so there are no distractions from the expressions in their eyes and the interactions of their moving mouths, grieving hands and occasional tears against the real tones of their skin. Over eight years, you watch the grieving teen physically grow into a young man; you see the topography of a burn victim’s arms and face shift through unending surgeries. While the film’s already been made and burned onto a disc, you find yourself hoping for their healing, relating to their shock, pain and uncertain search for answers, on some level.
The filmmakers’ dedication to let the narrative elements deliver, struck me at the beginning of the piece. In between the interviewees’ introductions of that day, we suddenly hear audio from news reports, but the screen stays black. The simple decision to roll the audio against a black screen instead of inundating it with matching b-roll of the burning towers makes the audio that much more powerful.
Without news footage or generic images to distract, our ears open up and let the familiar rhythm of the broadcasters’ sad words flow straight into our subconscious. The simple sound of a human voice has the ability to immediately draw its listener into a personal connection. We remember those reports ourselves; our mind fills in the rest. Such editing choices help the audience maintain focus on the subjects’ stories, and therefore on ours. The audio is exquisite for its honesty and depth, the footage for its rich artistry and technical originality. Quite admirably, the crew appreciates and balances the strengths of both, throughout the entire film.
Philip Glass composed the music score. (Some of his other film works include The Truman Show, The Hours, The Illusionist, and Errol Morris documentaries). The relationship between Glass’s music and the crystal clear footage of Ground Zero rebuilding, is singular. There is no third voice needed when those sequences run.
Some films are made in weeks, others over years. For this one, I imagined the entire crew working shoulder to shoulder—winding and rewinding the hundreds hours of personal histories and time-lapse photography they gathered—to make sure they captured and shared something that would not have existed otherwise. It doesn’t glorify or make better the hell that happened, but helps make some sense out of how people and places have changed from it.
In all honesty, trying to summarize the details and delivery of such a unique film wouldn’t do it justice. The people who shared their stories offered quite a gift to the audience by opening up and allowing cameras and microphones to share their struggles and sacred moments for several years. Whitaker says they started out interviewing 10 survivors and by the end decided to focus on these five narratives. Several telling parts of the film I would love to share, but I don’t want to give anything away. I urge you to watch it yourself to appreciate its value, not only as a compassionate memorial to some of the survivors closest to the fire, but as a quiet look into human processes struggling to make sense of traumatic experiences through grieving, healing, and transformation. Rebirth actually spawned Project Rebirth. You can find more about the DVD film, book (including some of the other interviews) and project here: http://projectrebirth.org/ .
– Feature-length audio commentary with director Jim Whitaker and Director of Photography Thomas Lappin—This film could be dissected and appreciated from several perspectives. The audio commentary offers interesting insight into how and why Whitaker and Lappin did things the way they did. As an oral historian with film experience, I’ve studied post-traumatic efforts to teach and discuss such events, especially with youth through film and oral histories. Watching Rebirth and listening to the audio commentary might be interesting and informative to other creative media professionals, historians, counselors and teachers; they talk about the methods they used and decisions they made to interview traumatized survivors, put them at ease, and let the story speak for itself.
– 14 cameras, 24 hours: a video about the time-lapse project (4 min)—Whether you’re a film geek or just captivated by the multiple time-lapse sequences in this project, this is a neat short doc that explains how they did it. Fourteen film cameras were used over several years, at multiple locations around Ground Zero to capture all that footage. Dressed with their own element-proof boxes, dehumidifiers, remote controls, the works, imagine the money it took to set them up. Lappin explains the historical and technical reasoning, engineering and maintenance behind the set-up. Then, through the feature film we literally watch Ground Zero transform from wiped-out nothingness, through months of construction, days, nights and seasonal shifts, into World Trade Center 7, the first building completed. The camera angles include aerial views atop of buildings, but ground-level perspectives and close-up renderings of WTC’s construction teams moving in and out, working with their hands and interacting with each other. The choice to move in so close and utilize that close-up footage makes the time-lapse sequences even more human.
– Extended time-lapse rough cut—Lappin captured hundreds of hours of film footage: from the interviews, time–lapse cameras, and b-roll they recorded around the city. This feature rolls 90 minutes of that tape, divided into 20 chapters you can scroll through and select, by significant 9/11-related events. Or if you’re multitasking, just let it roll in the background (some are audio-rich, others naturally quiet). Something will catch your attention: unedited sequences of memorials, shots of the tower light beams piercing New York’s night sky, or raw pieces of footage of the city going on with daily life.