‘Rebirth’ filmmaker James Whitaker talks to MTV News about documenting Ground Zero devastation and rebuilding for the past decade.
By Eric Ditzian, with reporting by Tami Katzoff
A month after the attacks of September 11, producer and filmmaker James Whitaker visited Ground Zero, where he found, in the midst of the devastation, a tiny glimmer of hope: the hole would eventually be filled; someday, somehow we would rebuild what had been lost and we would experience something of a collective rebirth ourselves.
Thus was born a 10-year documentary effort called “Rebirth,” which premieres on Showtime on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT, marking the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
“The film is a combination of the physical and emotional healing of the site over time,” Whitaker told MTV News. “It just dawned on me that it would be great to give an audience the sense of going from the dread and anxiety to the sense of hope I felt when I imagined what it would be like.”
The doc takes two approaches to capturing that mixture of dread and hope. Whitaker began by setting up three cameras around Ground Zero to take one frame of film every five minutes, 24 hours a day, documenting the evolution of the site and the eventual and ongoing construction of the new One World Trade Center. At the same time, he selected five people deeply affected by the tragedy and followed their stories for a decade.
“I started with the idea of Ground Zero itself and types of people, if you will,” he explained. “I was interested in a fireman, for example. I was interested in someone who was on the impact floor and may have survived. A young person who would grow up over the course of the film.”
As the effort gathered momentum, officials at the site took notice and gave the filmmaker their support. “Once we got the cameras going, the Port Authority just said, ‘Look, we understand the goal here is to record the history of the evolution of the site and we applaud and appreciate it,’ ” Whitaker recalled. “So we started out with three cameras triangulating the site. Now there are 14 that are in and around and down low in the site in different positions.”
As time passed and the site and his subjects began to heal, he found an organic end point for his film. “I think that the people who ended up in the film and were part of the whole process were really special,” he said. “In about the fourth or fifth year, I started to notice that the subjects were making a change. They were moving toward a place that felt like … a place of healing, a different place. It made me come to an understanding, which I said to myself, which was, ‘Listen to the film itself, and it will announce its own ending.’ And I realized at that point the film was really saying it’s ending.”
Whitaker added of Sunday’s 10-year anniversary, “On September 11, I’ll be thinking of the journeys of the wonderful people who participated in my film and how they got to a more healthy and hopeful place.”
What will you do to remember 9/11? Share your thoughts below, and visit 911day.org to upload your video response.