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9/11 Reports: Filmmakers React to Terrorist Tragedy

By Gregory Orr

I live in New York, and on September 11 I was home, less than 20 blocks from the World Trade Center Towers. I could have watched their undoing in person, but I remained fixed to the TV, hoping it would provide understanding and reassurance through its multiple-camera coverage.

I thought about picking up my Super-8 movie camera to record the immediate aftermath, but the camera just felt too heavy, and I spent the day alternating between shock and sadness. As a source of comfort, my profession failed me—or did I fail it? Nearly two months later, I still wonder, and so I asked fellow filmmakers to share their experiences of that terrible day and what, if anything, they have done in response.

Nicole Betancourt (filmmaker and creative director @ “I stood on my roof and snapped photographs compulsively (my video camera was out of reach). I later felt guilty that I had documented human suffering without any purpose in mind. I haven't developed the images yet because I don't know what I am going to do with them. Taking pictures or video helps me deal with traumatic events. It allows me to both hide behind the lens and capture the moment so I can deal with it over time.”

Cynthia Wade (filmmaker): “The next morning I put a little digital video camera in my bag in case I wanted to shoot. I wandered the streets in shock. I couldn't do it. I couldn't film. It seemed like a great violation against the victims, the rescue workers, and the entire city,

Albert Maysles (filmmaker): “The next day on the street, I was watching a TV crew interview a hot dog vendor. The questions weren’t very interesting and when the September 11, 2001: Filmmakers React by Gregory Orr (Oct. 2, 2001) 2. producer turned to me for a reaction, I said I’d answer only if I got to pose my own questions because the news doesn’t ask the right ones.”

Lynn Rogoff (President, Amerikids media company): “We grabbed the camera and, although we were shaking, we took the first document to testify to what we were witnessing. We feel we were lucky to have survived this attack and must bear witness and let the world know what is happening here.”

St. Clair Bourne (filmmaker): “I was in Los Angeles, but in talking with many people of color in LA, I kept hearing the phrase ‘chickens coming home to roost,’ which referred to the military actions previously undertaken by the US government in many Third World countries. In the wake of these unfortunate events, NYC-based media center Third World Newsreel issued a call to media makers to document the thoughts and feelings of people of color and other under-represented communities to present an alternative view to the mainstream media's aspect that has been sorely missing."

William Greaves (filmmaker): “I found myself returning again and again to Ralph Bunche, the legendary UN Undersecretary General and Nobel Peace Prize winner whose life I had been documenting on film for almost a decade. He had a keen sense of the depths to which we humans can sink when the dogs of war are unleashed. At the same time, he believed that reason was a powerful determinant of fate. As such, the onus was on him, as it is on all of us rationale beings to come up with creative alternatives to war and violence."

In a crisis, our profession gives some of us a sense of purpose, others a sense of shame. Documentary filmmakers are not the same as TV news crews, who are more like tourists, invading a sight for 20 minutes and taking a few pictures. We are more like sojourners who invest our hearts and minds in a subject and try to ask the right questions.

The day after the attack, I rallied myself to visit the Trade Center site, where I finally shot some Super-8 movies, just for the record. One of the rolls I used was half- exposed with scenes from several weeks earlier, when re-enactors in Revolutionary War costumes commemorated the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn in what is now Prospect Park.

Revealed in the developed roll was one of filmmaking’s oldest truths: by juxtaposing images, new meanings are discovered. There, on a 50-foot roll of film, were represented two chapters in our nation’s history—both of them undeniable disasters. (British forces decimated the Americans in that first battle of the revolution and might have won the war if not for Washington’s brilliant retreat.) A piece of film, edited by chance, had taught me a lesson about my country and reminded me of its resilience.


Gregory Orr writes and produces documentaries in New York and is currently producing The Day They Died, a two-hour special for The History Channel.