Eleven years have gone by since the horrific events of 9/11/2001 ripped across our TV screens. Sometimes it feels like a million years ago, and sometimes it feels like just yesterday that our country was united by panic, fear, grief, and—let’s face it—the vengeance born from that day. And if you turn on your TV this week, you’ll be inundated with every kind of 9/11 programming possible. But if you had to choose just one, consider Rebirth, by Jim Whitaker.
Rebirth is a documentary that follows the journey of five different subjects and Ground Zero itself, every year since 9/11 occurred. We meet a burn victim who survived one of the impact floors; a high school student who lost his mother in one of the towers; a construction worker who lost his firefighter brother and is working to rebuild Ground Zero; a woman who lost her firefighter fiancé; and a firefighter who lost his two closest friends along with hundreds of colleagues. We also meet Ground Zero in a way we never have before. Through time-lapse footage, the audience is lifted through a journey of destruction, clearing, emptiness, and finally, the bustling activity of new life. Though both the site and the subjects struggle to move forward from that horrible day, Rebirth is in the end a moving, intimate, stunning, and hope-filled piece of filmmaking.
Snakkle was honored to speak to the film’s director Jim Whitaker about the genesis of the project, what surprised him most throughout filming, the struggle to keep emotionally detached from his subjects, the film’s gorgeous score by Philip Glass, and so much more.
Snakkle: When 9/11 happened, as a person in entertainment and a filmmaker, did you immediately feel the need to process the event through a project like this?
Jim Whitaker: No, it came about surprisingly. I flew to New York to a close friend’s wedding—actually a guy I went to Georgetown with—and it was a surreal wedding. I noticed these guys in the corner and they were crying, and I realized it was just that dichotomy of the joy and the sadness. So I said to my wife the next day—and this was about a month after September 11—I want to go to Ground Zero to see it. And very specifically, I said, if we have kids one day I want to be able to explain what our experience of the day was. And [the idea for the film] happened there. I was down there, I was looking at the debris and the wreckage, and I was feeling a sense of dread and anxiety. And we cried. And then I started to imagine that all of that was gone and something new was there, and it gave me a sense of upflow and hope. And I thought, how could you deliver to an audience a feeling of dread and anxiety and then, in a very short period of time, a sense of hope? And I felt the best way to do that was to literally show it—to put cameras up, taking a frame of film every five minutes, 24 hours a day, and literally show what happened. Then what happened, after spending a lot of time down there… I just felt it was necessary to find people who had been affected by the day and do what I would kind of call a human time line: interview them once a year, every year, over a period of time.
Snakkle: Describe your feelings the first time you saw your time-lapse footage of Ground Zero—as it changed from hallowed ground into more of a construction zone.
Whitaker: Well, the first time I saw the time lapse it was kind of a relief. I thought, wow, we did this! Like, this could be done. So that was the first reaction I had. As it moved along, I’ve been kind of privileged to being privy to seeing this empty place become a place that had activity and then slowed down again and now has a lot of activity [again]. And it moved from really being hallowed ground to a site that remains hallowed ground but is now—it feels different because there is so much humanity bustling inside it, building things. So it’s both hallowed ground, yet there is new life there as well, with the buildings and the people that are building them.
Snakkle: Brian—the Ground Zero construction worker who lost his firefighter brother in the towers—at one point in the movie talked about having to remind the workers down there about where they were. That people died there and sacrificed their lives trying to save others. He seemed really concerned that these new workers would forget what happened on 9/11 while rebuilding the area. Do you feel like this is still an issue, with all this new life bustling around?
Whitaker: I think that Brian continues to remain a strong influence and torch down there because of his experience at the site: going down there the first day, finding his brother’s remains, and then staying down there. He had such a strong, powerful feeling about being there that I think it still—he remains fixed on the notion of completion. And he’s a reminder to some people who did not have that experience and see it as a job they’re doing.
Snakkle: I loved that Ling—who suffered second- and third-degree burns from being in the impact zone—said she would watch old episodes of Murder, She Wrote when she was having a really bad day and that it calmed her down. Though she had so much pain and went through so many surgeries, she seemed like she was really a fighter. But were there darker moments in her journey that we didn’t see in the piece?
Whitaker: The one moment, actually morning, I remember from the interviews—and this really happened in the second year, and this was echoed by the other subjects in the film—but beginning with her, she often described that year as being like a dark tunnel with no light at the end of it. I really think she didn’t know how things were going to turn out, and if they were going to turn out. And what I liked about that moment when she talked about Murder, She Wrote is that you just begin to see that little part of her spirit fighting through. No matter how hard it was, it was always there, but it was really trying to fight through to find the places where she could let herself be…. It felt almost comforting.
Snakkle: Did you choose your subjects based on their individual stories and personalities, or were you thinking consciously about stories that would be the most relatable?
Whitaker: I was thinking about types of people. I was interested in someone on the impact floor, I was interested in a fireman, I was interested in someone who was potentially growing older, like Nick [who was in high school and lost his mom in the towers], who was young. The thing that became a galvanizing thing for choices with respect to who was right was their emotional openness. Once that was decided, and I felt that inherently, I just said, “Okay, this person is right.” I didn’t overthink it.
Snakkle: How hard was it to step back as a filmmaker and maintain objectivity during these deeply emotional and intimate interviews? Especially when you see someone as young as Nick struggling so much with his relationship with his dad and trying to find his own identity after losing his mom.
Whitaker: Well, I just knew I had to, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard. And Nick’s really an example where I did feel that perhaps the most. Nick was a young boy becoming a man, and he was going through all these choices that are typical for a young boy becoming a man. So there were moments when I thought he might want me to give my advice, and I just knew I couldn’t do that. Whatever I thought about what he was thinking and where he should go and what options he should pursue, I knew that they had to be his own and I couldn’t cross that line. I was really, really sensitive to that in the process.
Snakkle: What surprised you most about your subjects as the years moved on?
Whitaker: I just didn’t know where they were going to go, and I think the thing that surprised me the most was around the fourth or fifth year, they all started to make a change. And I saw that kind of en masse. And I didn’t question it, but I just said, “Hmm, interesting.” Right around these years, things are starting to change here. It made me think and feel like… it announced the film was ending for me, and I had to listen to that. And it surprised me that they got to such a better place, to such a hopeful place.
Snakkle: What surprised you most when you viewed the film with a large audience for the first time?
Whitaker: Well, as a filmmaker, you know, there is a vulnerability that you feel: “Will they get it? Will they like it?” And when we showed it at Sundance, we got two standing ovations, and that was amazing. It’s been really gratifying to find that people are responding to it.
Snakkle: The music is so incredible and really creates a visceral experience for the audience—it’s emotional without being over-the-top. How did you collaborate with Philip Glass to achieve this beautiful score?
Whitaker: I have to say, from the moment we began, he had a very strong instinct about the material, and at one point he leaned over to me and put his arm on my arm and said, “I’ve started writing.” I had had a lot of ideas, but he had already brought his sensibility to what he felt [the film] was, and I really feel like he captured the emotion of it. And the other thing he did was that he kept stressing how the score had a sense of forward movement. That we had to remember that even though there was some sadness here, people were moving forward as Ground Zero was moving forward. He was always aware of that and how important it was musically to keep the rhythm of the feeling of the progression moving forward.
Snakkle: Will you keep adding to this film as the years go by? Perhaps footage from this 10th year to add to the DVD release?
Whitaker: Part of what the film is, is a historical record. I was very aware that when the cameras went up, we were recording the history of the site moving forward. For me, the film is sort of… of its time, if you will, in that I took this span of time and this is where we ended it. The cameras will keep running, and we’re going to be doing programming for the museum at Ground Zero, so there will be a way for it to continue, especially in respect to the time lapse. But I feel that the film is kind of the film. It is this period of time and represents this period of change for both the site and the people. I think it’s kind of important to let it be that.
Check Showtime.com to find info on Rebirth
Check out the theatrical trailer below: