September 1, 2002

After the Shock Subsides, the Docs Arrive: The Importance of Chronicling September 11

Photo: Star Reese, courtesy of CameraPlanet.


It’s strange to talk to so many filmmakers who whisper, under their breath, that they’re working on a project related to the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

It’s almost as if telling the story somehow prolongs the pain—and a shocking reaction, given how we, in the documentary community, collectively spend so much time chronicling and documenting difficult and painful subjects.

At festivals, industry screenings and summer gatherings, people talk about 9/11 production more like therapy than public work. I often hear, “I’m doing this for myself” or “I’m not even sure I want to show it.” The truth is, I’ve been guilty of saying those things myself.

But it’s wrong.

The emotions, images, smells, feelings, tastes and atmosphere of this moment in history are precious—and fleeting. It’s our job, as chroniclers of history, to grab these amorphous elements in a jar and keep them on a shelf for all time.

To its credit, the documentary community is coming out of its shellshock and replacing whimpers with work. More and more, you hear, “I’m making a film.” Films about people, films about events, films about emotions, films about facts, films about politics, films about what might have/could have/should have been.

And it is a challenge. As a community, many of us witnessed first hand, or even survived, the attacks; we were emotionally raw and, quite honestly, thrown off balance, even if we weren’t prepared to admit it.

For me, the trick was to find a way to create emotional distance from the subject by thinking about the needs of an audience who might be watching years from now, because what might seem exploitative today is tomorrow’s vital detail. The barely watchable weeks after the attacks was the key future context for understanding the full horror of what happened.

At the same time, as we seize a leadership role in bringing these events to life, it’s also the responsibility—and in the enlightened self-interest—of distributors, both television and film, not to hide behind a veil of “9/11 fatigue,” or the notion that the audience is “overwhelmed” by this topic.

On TV, we’re already hearing that networks have “enough” stories about the World Trade Center attacks. As for film, to the best of my knowledge, there’s no theatrical feature documentary slated for release anytime soon. Those are strategic errors.

As I’ve had the opportunity to talk to audiences around the country and hear their interest—and need—to learn and understand as much as possible about what happened, I’ve become more and more convinced that it’s a fake fatigue. Perhaps network buyers feel overexposed and theatrical distributors don’t think audiences will pay, but if they act on those beliefs, they’re severely shortchanging a mass viewership that clearly wants more.

As someone who makes a living creating documentary films, I believe that now, more than ever, important stories need to be seen and experienced, and networks need to continue to view material from filmmakers. Stories about victims, stories about rescue workers, stories about Arab-Americans, stories about the children of WTC victims..they’re all part of history.

And theatrical release matters because the cinema still has a uniquely powerful ability to create a shared community experience in an environment where attendees have made an affirmative decision to immerse themselves in the material. For possibly the most important and horrifying event in a generation, the theater is the one place that allows documentarians to deliver the full power of their craft.

But 9/11 marked another important watershed: the recognition that the power of eyewitness filmmaking equals—indeed, sometimes exceeds—every other kind of production.

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of CBS airing a two-hour special shot by two film students—a groundbreaking event for filmmakers around the world. The partnership, with Susan Zirinsky as executive producer teaming with the Naudet brothers, was a peek into the future of network/filmmaker collaborations. The result was an incredibly powerful film with network polish and the edge and access of an indie documentary.

And that’s no fluke. Since its founding in 1998, Peter Gabriel’s “witness” project ( has been creating activist/filmmakers. And increasingly, images and stories from across the globe are creating dialogue, debate and discussion.

This is why we at CameraPlanet have organized the work of more than 60 filmmakers, amateur and professional, and created a living archive of 9/11 images ( that we’re working to preserve for future generations of documentarians.

So for documentary filmmakers, welcome to center stage. Spurred by the events of 9/11, you have your camera, your perspective, your passion that audiences will increasingly seek. That doesn’t mean it will be any easier to get your film sold, or that the fees will be any better; it just means that the personal documentary as a central form of understanding current affairs has made a powerful leap forward, and that’s nothing to feel guilty about.


Steve Rosenbaum is CEO of He can be reached at