A month after September 11th, film producer Jim Whitaker paid a visit to Ground Zero with his wife. Surveying the rubble-filled crater, he felt the same grief and dread many of us experienced in the wake of the attacks wash over him. But then a different thought struck him: “I had a moment,” he told The Huffington Post, “where I realized the place was going to one day look different, and it gave me a small sense of hope.”
It may seem obvious now, an unremarkable observation, but back then it was a little revolutionary. This was not how Americans were told to think. We were told to be afraid. Any message trying to rally optimism was usually built around military posturing. The attack was used as a pretense to limit our freedoms and start pointless wars, and we allowed it to happen. In the movies, blood is paid unto blood, and revenge is sacrosanct, underlying most of our favorite action thrillers. But in real life, nothing is fixed when you kill someone back. It heals nothing, fixes nothing, changes nothing. Whitaker’s thought wasn’t about any of that, and out of it he later started Project Rebirth.
Project Rebirth is an organization dedicated to helping people recover from their traumas. At its center is Rebirth, a documentary Whitaker began working on not long after his revelation on that October day. In March 2002, he set up cameras around Ground Zero, and for the next eight years, they watched the site as it underwent its cleanup and development. Day and night, in five-minute time-lapse increments, the rubble-filled crater came back to life. At the same time, Whitaker and his team sought out people who were directly affected by the attacks. In an Up-series-esque move, the crew visited these individuals once a year during production, catching up with them and their progress each time.
Rebirth focuses on five of these characters. Tim was a firefighter who was called to the World Trade Center on 9/11 and who lost many colleagues in the collapse of the towers, including his best friend. Brian is a construction worker whose brother died in the attack and who later worked on the cleanup and rebuilding of the site. Tanya’s fiance worked in the World Trade Center, and he died that day. Likewise, Nick, who was only a teenager at the time, lost his mother, who worked on Wall Street. Ling was in the WTC when the planes struck and was badly burned. These five people are the only ones who speak in the film. In them, the audience sees different variations on the grieving and healing process.
The movie is often harrowing. It avoids any direct depiction of the attacks, the closest thing being a bone-chilling image of ash and debris floating across an empty street. But the characters’ firsthand accounts of that day are devastating all on their own, from Ling’s story of how she barely managed to escape the towers, to Tim talking about the chaos of the rescue efforts, to Tanya and Nick relating what it’s like to know that someone you love is in the middle of such an event while completely helpless to do anything about it.
And then there’s what comes after: Ling’s ugly burns and the dozens of surgeries she has to go through as her wounds stubbornly refuse to heal; Nick having a falling-out with his father when he remarries too soon after 9/11 for Nick’s liking; Tim and Tanya describing the debilitating anxiety of post-traumatic stress disorder; Brian wondering when something will actually be done with the now-empty WTC site. Rebirth is one of the most emotionally flaying documentaries of recent memory.
But there’s light after the dark. It’s right there in the title. Each time the movie jumps forward another year, things are a little better. Between each segment of interviews, the time-lapse footage of the WTC site appears. With the accompaniment of Philip Glass’s typically haunting and resonant score, these sequences turn the site into a stage for a dance, the twirling of construction cranes and motions of bulldozers and cars taking on a choreographed grace. Gently, they reassemble signs of human habitation on the once-desolate stretch of dirt.
But the human transformation is what’s truly astonishing. Nick grows up before the viewer, from a confused teenager to a confident young man. In one of the film’s best scenes, he talks about how he no longer holds any hate for Osama bin Laden, how he realized his hatred was pointless. Rebirth came out not long before news of bin Laden’s death caused widespread celebration across the U.S., as if it really changed anything about what happened on 9/11. Nick’s serenity is a powerful counterpoint to the impulse to look to violence as a salve for pain.
Tanya eventually allows herself to fall in love again, gets married and has a baby. Tim throws himself into political work in order to keep busy and finds new purpose in it. Brian takes pride in the progress made in the rebuilding effort. Ling’s pains finally start to recede, and she regains some of her lost function in her body. No one is “fixed.” No one is “all better now.” But in the first series of interviews, filmed just months after 9/11, it seemed impossible to these people that anything would be okay again. Ten years on, and they can function more-or-less normally.
In the 13 years since September 11th, the biggest lesson the movies seem to have taken from the event is how to better depict buildings crumbling. Films directly dealing with that day have struggled to do so respectfully, many of them stumbling over the line of good taste into exploitation. The most acclaimed dramatic films (such as United 93) have mainly worked to recreate the events of the day, which is a good way to evoke their terror, but which does nothing towards helping people move on in their aftermath.
Documentaries have not fared much better. Many of them are lurid made-for-TV pieces that do little more than reconstruct and explain the tiniest minutiae of the attacks and the destruction of the towers. Again, they can’t move past the day. Just like too many Americans caught in confusion or anger, they can’t move past the day. And like Whitaker’s glimmer of hope back in 2001, looking beyond the attacks doesn’t seem like it should be a big revelation. And yet it is.
The human spirit can bounce back from pretty much anything. It’s a message we’ve been told in so many hokey ways that we’re completely numb to it. But something that can remind an audience of the miraculous truth in such a corny message is something special. That’s what Rebirth is. Without ever raising its voice above a measured tone, this documentary argues loudly for the power of forgiveness (of both others and the self), of grace, of peace.
Which makes it all the more a shame that it’s gone hideously overlooked in the three years or so since its release. But in a world where 9/11 is still used as an excuse to violate people’s constitutional rights, oppress Muslims and wage shadow wars in other countries, we could use a reminder of the benefits of moving past pain and hate. That’s why Rebirth is more vital than ever.