On September 11, 2001, Jules Naudet shot the clearest footage of the first plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The French-American filmmaker was working with his brother Gédéon Naudet on a documentary on the firefighters of Manhattan’s Engine 7, Ladder 1 firehouse. That project became 9/11, one of the most significant docs about one of the most devastating days in US history.
Now the Naudet brothers have a three-part documentary about one of the most devastating days in French history. Netflix’s November 13: Attack on Paris chronicles the events of November 13, 2015, when ISIL terrorists attacked six locations around the city, including the Stade de France during a soccer match and the Bataclan theatre during an Eagles of Death Metal concert, killing a total of 130 people with hundreds more seriously injured.
This time, the Naudets were not on hand capturing the tragedy as it unfolded. Nor is there a lot of any kind of footage of the events from the night of November 13th featured in the new series. There is a brief clip of the concert as the shooting there began, another of terrorists getting out of their car, some videos recorded outside the cafes and the Bataclan when the police were on the scene, but not much first-hand material like what is seen in the Naudet brothers’ 9/11 film.
November 13 is a very different sort of documentary, more of an oral history compiled of interviews with survivors, witnesses, responders and politicians, including then-President of France François Hollande, who was at the soccer arena when the three suicide bombers struck the exterior. The first part of the series focuses on the attacks at the stadium and the cafes and restaurants, where gunmen fired into crowds from the street and one terrorist blew himself up inside the Comptoir Voltaire cafe. The second part is devoted to the Bataclan massacre, and the third episode continues to cover the Bataclan attack once it became a hostage situation.
Through the testimonials, we hear from people about their experiences of the attacks, and while some details are striking — a description of a “hill” of bodies at the Bataclan at the end of the night, for instance — there’s no way we can get a full sense of what happened, what it looked like. But we don’t need to picture those horrible images, if we could even accurately imagine them. The accounts in November 13 tell a step-by-step story of the events, yet ultimately this isn’t just a record of the facts for posterity. It’s a documentary about the effect of the experiences on these people interviewed more than it’s about the experiences themselves.
Some of the individual narratives that stand out are those that involve direct losses. Gregory Reibenberg, owner of La Belle Equipe restaurant, tells the story of the shooting there but stops when he gets to the part where he discovered his wife was a victim out on the terrace. “That’s enough,” he tells the camera. “I’ve written about it.” Another man heartbreakingly recalls having to leave his girlfriend’s body behind in the Bataclan during the evacuation of survivors and how he knew it was the last time he’d ever see her. The chief of the SWAT team that went into the concert venue conveys the moment he realized that a friend was in attendance and now there among the dead.
Other stories manage to be heart-wrenching as distinctly distressing personal moments within the greater tragedy. One woman talks of how her size was nearly a detriment to her own survival, and maybe others’, when she was part of a group of concert-goers who hid inside a false ceiling. Hundreds of stories can be told of tragedies from all different perspectives. For the November 13th attacks, there’s already the accounts of the members of the band playing that night in the HBO documentary Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis. This one shares the accounts of those particular people we meet on screen, and none are less significant than any other.
That is a realization Reibenberg poignantly came to after the events of November 13th when he encountered a line of people seeking psychiatric counseling the next day. Initially, he felt more entitled to treatment because he had lost his wife. But everyone who was a part of the experience of the attacks, on any level, had their own pain to overcome. And it’s interesting that such a consideration is shared by someone involved in one of the restaurant attacks, since comparatively the Bataclan massacre received the majority of attention at the time due to its greater number of victims. Meanwhile, a woman who survived the Bataclan shooting says she doesn’t want to be seen as “that woman who survived the Bataclan shooting” anymore.
Everyone had a different experience that night, whether they were at a location under attack or not, and everyone has a different way of remembering and dealing with it. That goes beyond the subjects seen in the documentary. Beyond Paris, and beyond France. And if November 13 affects American viewers the way 9/11 affected non-American audiences, the Naudets will have again achieved a solidarity among us all.