The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is now behind us, and along with it the litany of commemorative broadcasts, special presentations, and memorial tributes. While I’m not particularly bothered by the abundance of event coverage, I know there are lots of people who are burnt out on anything concerning the terrorist attacks on America. Still, there are some great documentary films that manage to overcome the typically sensational, overly maudlin trappings. Rebirth is certainly one of those projects that memorializes the events of that day by focusing on the people who were directly affected and the way in which they were forced to deal with unforeseen tragedy.
Director Jim Whitaker focuses on five people — all with very different stories — who lost loved ones or were injured on September 11th. He follows them for over a decade, breaking down the very personal healing process — both mentally, and physically — into chapters divided by year. In 2002, emotions run high and the shock has yet to wear off. Those who have lost loved ones are still overwhelmed by the disbelief that their mother/fiancee/friend is really gone. The fallout of the terrorist attack has changed everything. Families fall apart, future plans disintegrate, and physical wounds are still fresh. A teen who lost his mother resents his father for remarrying so quickly. A fiancee struggles with the concept of moving on and pursuing love. A woman’s burns turn to scars, pulling on her skin and limiting her mobility. Much like Michael Apted’s Up Series, we get to watch people grow as initial feelings of despair, hatred, and helplessness slowly subside as time passes. For a woman who lost her fiancee, the thought of finding love again was once unthinkable. Watching her come to the realization that it’s okay to move on is quite remarkable and you can empathize with that sort of internal struggle.
The film also contains time lapse footage of the reconstruction of ground zero, which works brilliantly against the more human ‘rebuilding’ taking place throughout the rest of the film. Fourteen 35mm motion picture film cameras are rolling 24 hours a day, capturing what will be the world’s longest running time lapse film in history. Rebirth contains much of this footage, but the project will continue until 2015, capturing the final construction of the 9/11 memorial and the ‘Freedom Tower’. One can’t help but be reminded of Koyanisqaatsi as the high speed urban imagery plays out through the film, accompanied by a great new score by Philip Glass. Although Rebirth is made up of mostly talking head interviews, there are some great cinematic moments throughout the film that are definitely heightened by Glass’ score. However, there are also some song choices that are less than inspired, including a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Israel Kamakawiwo’s cover of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow'; two songs which are criminally overused in movies. I suppose an argument could also be made for the overuse of Philip Glass in non-fiction filmmaking, but I still love his work.
I’m not sure Rebirth will successfully curb whatever cynicism some might have towards 9/11 and everything that surrounds it. All I can say is the film is less focused on the events of the day and more interested in the stories of the people and how they dealt with tragedy. Anyone who finds the ambitiousness of the Up Series intriguing should definitely check out Rebirth. — Jay C.