Sundance 2011: 'Rebirth' redefines 9/11
So it went Thursday afternoon when "Rebirth," an examination of the emotional toll taken by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, played to a Sundance audience that felt like it had been punched in the gut, driven to tears and given a (small) hug before being sent out staggering into the bright mountain sunshine.
There have been numerous first-person and talking-head accounts of the attacks on the World Trade Center nearly 10 years ago. But the movie from filmmaker Jim Whitaker, a former executive at Hollywood production company Imagine Entertainment, distinguished itself in several ways at the screening.
Whitaker finds five disparate and very emotionally available subjects: Tim, a firefighter who was on the scene and lost his co-worker and his best friend; Ling, a fiftysomething Chinese woman who was trapped high in one tower and suffered serious burns; Tanya, a 34-year-old at the time of the attacks who lost her firefighter fiance; Nick, a teenager who lost his mother; and Brian, a ground zero construction worker who lost his brother.
But instead of simply sitting each of them down once or twice to reflect on the tragedy, Whitaker shows a marathon runner's patience. He gets together with each of the victims numerous times over a very long period -- he starts right after the attacks, and then conducts annual interviews with them all the way through 2009. (Think of a more tragic version of Michael Apted's "7-Up" series.)
In these yearly meetings, shown chronologically, the individuals' physical and emotional demeanors change, as do our perceptions of them. We watch the victims dig deeper into their feelings and memories as they try to reach acceptance. It's like time-lapse photography with human beings, a conceit that matches neatly with the actual time-lapse photography Whitaker and cinematographer Tom Lappin take of the Ground Zero site as it's being torn down and built up. There's no politics, though; those looking for commentary on the near-ground-zero-mosque controversy, for instance, will have to look elsewhere.
The group of five's narration of their innermost thoughts is harrowing enough; it becomes even more wrenching when spliced in with scenes from their lives with their families and with children left behind. (The movie, which is part of a nonprofit project called Project Rebirth, will be included in a permanent exhibit at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, where it will be shown with material on other victims that Whitaker wasn't able to include in the film. No television of theatrical buyer has picked up rights yet, but it won't be long.)
Most of the five actually didn't know each other before a week ago. Since Sundance, however, they've been spending time together and sharing their experiences. Tim Brown, the firefighter, said he had been recognized several times around Park City, Utah, which after years of private grief was a surreal experience.
He said the movie was as cathartic for him as it was for the audience. "We all came around in a circle," Brown said of the process of nine years of interviews.
Hollywood has taken on 9/11 in scripted form many times, including Paul Greengrass' "United 93" and Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center"; it will try again shortly with Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." Whitaker's movie showed everyone in Park City -- and, soon enough, likely a much broader audience -- the full extent of what a Sept. 11 documentary can do.
--Steven Zeitchik in Park City, Utah
Photo: A scene from "Rebirth." Credit: Sundance Film Festival