Volume 18 • Issue 34 | January 7 - 12, 2006

Film uses Downtown home for 9/11 documentary

<<Courtesy Peter Josyph

By Steven Snyder

On Christmas Eve four years ago, artist and filmmaker Peter Josyph spent the day at the site of the World Trade Center collapse. It was a pilgrimage he had making since October of 2001, when he felt compelled to leave the safety of his New Jersey home to see just what had happened only “30 miles down the road.” That day in December, however, was the first time he arrived with a digital camera in hand. In the 18 months that followed, Josyph would return to the site to film over 200 hours of footage, interview dozens of Lower Manhattan’s residents and volunteers, and later edit what he saw down to a two-hour documentary called “Liberty Street: Alive At Ground Zero.”

This New Year’s Day, two weeks before his film makes its New York premiere at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater on Jan. 12, Josyph was editing the final proofs for the first in a planned series of three books that tell the stories he was unable to fit into the film. Titled “Liberty Street: Encounters At Ground Zero,” it will be released by University Press of New England in May.

“They say this is the most documented event in history,” Josyph said. “But what does that mean? We only have one shot of the first plane — where is the documentation of what happened ten minutes before that, on the planes, inside the buildings, in the plaza between the two strikes or two collapses?

“How is it the most documented event?”

Josyph said he started making the film not so much out of choice but out of need; that as an artist, this was the story he could tell, and the way he could help the city cope with the tragedy. He first went down to the site out of a need to put the event in some sort of context, and was shocked that what he saw in person was not matching what he saw on television.

“I went down because I wanted to see,” he said. “But it was through looking through the lens, looking through the zoom of the camera, as you’re flying over the barricades and the National Guard and traveling right into those burnt-in, bashed-down buildings that I knew I had to make something,” he said.

“From the moment I took the first shot, I had changed forever.”

Josyph said the more personal story contained within “Liberty Street” began thanks to Kevin McCrary, an area volunteer who had set up a supply post near the World Trade Center site, handing out food, drinks and even boots to workers.

McCrary’s father, Tex, had led the first photographers into Hiroshima during World War II, but the United States government never allowed those photos to be seen by the American public. Josyph said once McCrary saw him carrying cameras and trying to document the event, he set out to help the filmmaker tell the story no one else was trying to tell – just like his father did.

It was McCrary who led him to 114 Liberty St., a building that physically survived the nearby destruction but was severely contaminated and required extensive cleaning and gutting. At this particular address, residents were forced out of their homes for more than three years.

The first tenant to move in after the building’s renovations was Steven Abramson, and his memories of the years between Sept. 11 and his return in 2004 are of constant struggle.

“What Al Qaeda did to the area was horrific,” Abramson said. “But the years following were nearly as bad – just the struggle to get help, the struggle to get things back in order, and not getting a heck of a lot of help in return.”

Abramson remembers a difficult and exhausting experience, a time when he could not even visit his home or have insurance inspectors visit without special permission. He said he focused instead on his daughter’s life, trying to give it the sense of normalcy that was lacking from his own. And he credits his wife as the only reason his family did not throw in the towel.

“My wife is the real hero, she would not give up,” he said. “I got to a certain point where I said, ‘This is never going to happen,’ and she wouldn’t hear any of it.

“And now we have a beautiful home in a beautiful building.”

Three floors above Abramson lives Mark Wainger, who was home the morning of Sept. 11 and whose home video footage of the attacks appears in “Liberty Street.” He first saw the completed film last spring, and said it is an important reminder of just what happened in an area that is now a tourist attraction.

“Peter did a great job,” Wainger said. “In those years, you would come back to your apartment time and again to get stuff, and you would see these machines cranking outside and the noises they’d be making and the building shaking…and I thought he did a good job of conveying the immensity of the whole project.”

Wainger said the low point of the ordeal was realizing that while firemen used his apartment to keep watch for a potential collapse in the debris across the street, other apartments in his building were being looted. He said that seeing the film four years after those firemen were gone and months after the building had completed renovation was an unbelievable experience.

“To be sitting in a TV room that had been filled with dust and was considered inhabitable, and to be relaxing there and watching this film was surreal,” he said.

“You do forget after a while about how much [went] on, and that was helpful to see again and remind myself. It will really be something to see 10 years from now, when the entire site is rebuilt.”

“Liberty Street,” Josyph’s follow-up to a previous documentary about the art of acting and its relation to literature titled “Acting McCarthy: The Making of Billy Bob Thornton’s ‘All The Pretty Horses,’” premiered at the Putnam County Film & Video Festival last October where it won Best of Fest for Feature Documentary. He said he made the film because he saw a story that not yet been told amid the larger 9/11 saga: The recovery.

In basing his documentary at 114 Liberty St. and routinely sneaking his camera past checkpoints into the no-photography zone so he could record interviews with residents, area volunteers and emergency responders, Josyph said both his film and books are attempts to guide an audience through a story that is too large for most to process.

“For me, after spending four years on the film, I still don’t know what happened down there,” he said. “I wrote a book and I made a two-hour film and I still wonder if I was there. I still have this sense of confusion, and awe, and being unmanned by it and disrupted by it the first day I was down there.”

What Josyph said he found on those first days was a world unlike he had ever known. Remnants of the attack, the fire and the destruction were found in every apartment and on every street corner. He said he is devoting an entire chapter in his upcoming book to the smell of the 100-day fire alone. Donavin Gratz, a carpenter and contractor who appears in the film, said the smell of that day returned when he cleaned the ash out of 114 Liberty’s air ducts.

Through his film and upcoming books, Josyph’s primary goal is to make that morning of the 11th, as well as the following years in the lives of those who continued to live and cope in Lower Manhattan, an immediate experience.

“Do the people in Madrid, Spain or in Madison, Wisconsin know about the exact neighborhood in which this happened?” Josyph asked. “This extraordinary urban space, how do you put all of that in context?”

The context Josyph chose in “Liberty Street” are the personal stories of both those who remained at the site day after day and night after night, working tirelessly to remove the debris, and those who chose to rebuild their lives just across the street from this massive operation. He also sought to track the buildings after the collapse, something no one else had before chronicled.

“In some sense I wanted to follow the story of those buildings through the redistribution, that’s why there’s a sequence on Pier 6 and Pier 25,” Josyph said, describing an extensive operation created after the attacks for removal of the Trade Center. “I have not seen a single minute of footage on how they got off the island; that’s an extraordinary story.”

In his documentary, we see the answer, already familiar to residents living in Tribeca after 9/11: The buildings are hauled by one tugboat to New Jersey, beam by beam.

The biggest question, though, for both Josyph and the Pioneer Theater, which opens his film next Thursday, is whether now — more than four years later — people are still as engaged and interested in the topic.

“People said, ‘You better hurry up, this on everyone’s mind now,’ but I thought, ‘If this is an important event, it’s important for the ages,’” Josyph said.

“I wasn’t making a film about the past, I was making a film about the present,” he said. “I wanted to know what of 9/11 was still to be found in the present.”

Josyph, who is 58 now and was 54 when he first discovered the story that would become “Liberty Street,” said there was one moment amid the destruction that overwhelmed him. It was when one of his local guides pointed out the “spotters” — the volunteers who would watch the cleanup from a distance and sift through the rubble when it appeared as though there might be human remains. They would get on their hands and knees, Josyph said, and in some cases even smell or taste the rubble.

He said he has never quite recovered from the breakdown that consumed him for the next eight hours.

Josyph said he knows that, for some, the memory of that day is still too haunting, and that some will still not be ready to return to those scenes and days in “Liberty Street.”

“A lot of people don’t want to think about it, don’t want to look at it, can’t bear this and that’s okay because the film will be there for that time when they do want to reflect,” he said.

“Personally, I became more of a New Yorker in the first half hour of shooting at Ground Zero than in the first 40 or 50 years of my life,” he said. “Maybe it’s because, for the first time, the city was more beat than I was.”


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