Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
Jim Whitaker, director of “Project Rebirth”
Learning from the healing documented in 9/11 interviews
By Julie Shapiro
The editing of a documentary film can be brutal, with hundreds of hours of carefully gathered interviews winding up on the cutting room floor, never to be seen by the public.
“Project Rebirth,” Jim Whitaker’s new documentary chronicling the lives of 10 people affected by 9/11, was originally going to be no different — Whitaker could only fit a tiny percentage of his footage into the 90-minute film, and he had no plans for the rest of it.
But then, as Whitaker started showing early versions of his footage in 2006, doctors and professors told him that his interviews with grieving 9/11 survivors provided a useful in-depth look at the trauma and healing that follow a major disaster. It would be a shame for most of that footage to never leave a Los Angeles editing studio, they said.
“The opportunity to view people firsthand describing experiences like this is completely unique,” said Dr. M. Katherine Shear, psychiatry professor at Columbia’s School of Social Work. “It’s amazing…. You get to see longitudinally how the person changes — you learn about their story and how it unfolds.”
Whitaker loved the idea that his film could help people and took it one step further: Rather than wait until the documentary’s Toronto Film Festival debut this September, or the general release planned for 2011, he decided to immediately make the raw interviews available to academics at Columbia and Georgetown Universities, for use in their classes.
“If we can start making [the film] be helpful to people now — if it could be cathartic in any way — we should be doing that,” Whitaker said in an interview last week.
Whitaker’s 10 subjects include a teenage boy whose mother was killed in the attacks; a young woman who lost her firefighter fiancé; and a woman who was badly burned in the conflagration at ground zero. In intense one-on-one interviews with Whitaker on each anniversary of 9/11, the survivors described the day and its aftermath, crying as they shared memories or asked, “What if…?” The survivors told Whitaker about their sleeplessness, their nightmares, their initial disbelief and, eventually, by the seven-year anniversary of the attacks, their acceptance.
To create his documentary, Whitaker is combining those interviews with time-lapse footage from 14 cameras stationed around the World Trade Center site. Whitaker founded Project Rebirth shortly after 9/11, when he visited the site and felt driven to capture its changes. Last year, Whitaker decided to focus on Project Rebirth full-time and left his previous job as president of production for Imagine Entertainment, where he produced films including “American Gangster,” “8 Mile” and “Cinderella Man.”
Once professors began reviewing Whitaker’s “Project Rebirth” interview footage in 2006, they found that the possibilities for its use are virtually endless. Psychiatrists can study the symptoms of grief and the success of the survivors’ coping mechanisms. Linguists can study the way men and women communicate differently about trauma. Anthropologists can analyze the subjects’ cultural background and how that affected their response and healing.
And after all that studying, Whitaker hopes the professors will craft tools to help disaster responders around the world help people who are traumatized. Whitaker and his partners at Columbia and Georgetown will soon launch the nonprofit Project Rebirth Center, an online repository of the interview footage and a place where grief professionals can share research and ideas. All proceeds from the film will go toward the center, Whitaker said.
“[We want to] develop methods that would make it easier to respond to massive traumatic events, whether that’s 9/11, or the tsunami, or Haiti,” said Frank Moretti, executive director of Columbia’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, which is coordinating the effort.
Between climate change and international terrorism, Moretti said the next 50 years would unfortunately be rife with opportunities to improve disaster responsiveness. Moretti described the way a massive trauma like 9/11 moves through a society, with those closest to it affected the most but the entire populace affected in some way. He is also interested in the long-term support people need to recover from a tragedy, after the Red Cross has left and the country’s attention shifts elsewhere.
“We tend to think trauma is something that happens at a moment,” Moretti said. “But it’s like a wave that moves through your life and undulates until it calms down. Does it do that on its own? Perhaps — but there are also modes of intervention,” he said, and that’s what the Project Rebirth Center will explore.
Professors at Georgetown and Columbia have already begun using the “Project Rebirth” footage for everything from freshman writing classes to graduate seminars.
Dr. Shear, the Columbia psychiatry professor, uses the film to teach students how people cope with loss. One assignment for her graduate students was to watch one of the interviews and describe the subject’s grief symptoms, along with evidence of the subject’s personal strength and how he or she could use that strength to cope with the loss.
The woman whose fiancé was killed in the attacks was inconsolable in the first interview, done one year after the attacks. She described in great detail the way firefighters came to her door with the news, and how she both knew what they would say before they said it, and how she still could not believe it was true. The subsequent videos trace her move to Miami, where she took refuge in the freedom of a motorcycle and started dating again, eventually meeting her current husband.
The more time the professors spend with the footage, the more they say that it transcends 9/11 and becomes about the subjects themselves and the broader human experience of grief and resilience.
Randy Bass, associate professor of English at Georgetown University, has used the footage to teach freshmen about slowing down and listening in depth to someone else’s story, a skill he said is similar to careful reading. This semester, Bass is teaching an upper-level seminar where students brainstorm ways to build a participatory Web site for the Project Rebirth Center.
In addition to the center helping service providers and educators, Bass also hopes it could help survivors themselves.
“In some ways, everyone thinks they survived 9/11,” Bass said. In such large catastrophes, “The boundary line between victims and survivors and bystanders is blurred.”
Researchers already know that the act of telling their story is helpful for victims, and Bass wonders if they could experience the same catharsis by having virtual conversations via the Project Rebirth Center.
“What does narrative therapy look like in the age of YouTube?” Bass said. “What does it mean to upload your own testimony in the aftermath [of a catastrophe], to find connections to other people who may feel similarly?”
Bass pointed out that the Internet has already fostered supportive communities, whether it’s a dating advice blog or a message board for parents of children with autism.
“We run to the Web for solace, for information, for other people with similar stories,” Bass said.
While Bass, Moretti and others continue exploring uses for the footage, Whitaker is focusing on editing the final feature-length film, which he expects to finish in the next month or two. Whitaker said he would have liked to unveil “Project Rebirth” at the Tribeca Film Festival this month, but it was not ready in time, so he decided to go to the Toronto Film Festival in the fall instead.
A four-minute version of “Project Rebirth,” showing both the interviews and the time-lapse views of the W.T.C. site, debuted last August at the 9/11 Preview Site on Vesey St., where it runs on loop and often leaves visitors wiping their eyes.
The short film derives much of its power from the time-lapse images, which show the chaotic movement of steel and concrete from a distance that makes the physical construction feel redemptive. The cameras also captured the change of seasons in the St. Paul’s Chapel cemetery, trees blossoming and wilting in an instant, snow falling to blanket the tombstones and obscure the rising cranes across the street. In between these meditative time-lapse sequences, the interview subjects speak about their loss and growth.
Whitaker does not have an estimate of the total cost of producing his film, partly because he has received many in-kind donations or discounts. The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. has given Project Rebirth $1.3 million, and other major sponsors include The Aon Foundation, OppenheimerFunds, Keefe, Bruyette & Woods and JLS Industries, Inc.
When Whitaker started filming “Project Rebirth,” he didn’t know how long it would take to finish. But two years ago, he sensed a change in each of his subjects, whether it was something large, like getting married, or something subtler, like the peace of acceptance.
That transformation was taking place all along the way. On Sept. 11, 2005, the boy who was in high school when his mother was killed had moved on to college.
“It’s been four years, and I think about her every day,” he said slowly, “but I’ve learned to live without her.”
“They’re able to hold and digest the loss that’s happened to them, but at the same time move forward with their life,” Whitaker said. “They’re at a pretty dramatically different place from where they started. It made me realize the film was going to kind of announce its own ending.”
Whitaker did his last interviews with the subjects on the seven-year anniversary. The time-lapse cameras around the site are still taking pictures every five minutes, and they will stay in place for at least another five years, providing footage for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
“We’ll be there until somebody cuts a ribbon and says, ‘OK, we’re done here,’” Whitaker said last week. “I don’t know when that will be.”