The Eyes of the World Focus on Ground Zero
By Tom White
On September 11 and the days that followed, New York-based documentary filmmakers responded in different ways—some recorded what they saw on video, some on film, some on still cameras. For others, the enormity of the tragedies was too overwhelming to record.
This is a story about how one production company responded.
BNNtv.com (Broadcast News Network) is a leading New York City-based interactive media company. Its television division produces up to 40 hours of nonfiction programming annually for most of the US-based cable and network broadcasters, while its website division, CameraPlanet.com, provides a forum for viewers to shoot and tell their stories, in collaboration with BNNtv’s team of producers and editors.
BNNtv’s offices are 30 blocks north of what was the World Trade Center. When it was clear that the attacks on the towers were no accident, CEO and Founder Steven Rosenbaum faced a challenging choice: “Either the day was going to end and everyone was going to run for cover because we were all scared and in need of some focus, or we were going to get to work.” He assembled everyone for a meeting, put up an assignment board, mobilized six camera crews and sent them out into the field. “What’s interesting is that I’ve never worked in the news business,” Rosenbaum recalls. “But before everyone left, we had a map on the wall with pins of where they were assigned to go, a cell phone number for each crew, and a system about how we were going to keep track of their movements. And it happened more intuitively than anything else.”
The crews worked all day, shooting what they saw, talking to the police, firemen, victims, medical technicians, witnesses—anyone. By the time the crews returned from the field 10 hours later, Rosenbaum had assigned a team of editors to screen and log their footage and dispatched two more crews to shoot the overnight shift. And all this time, BNNtv was working without a client, which turned out to be advantageous. “The news crews were busy shooting pictures, then running back to the trucks to get their pictures on TV,” Rosenbaum recalls. “There were very few people focused on a documentary point of view that said ‘shoot everything, talk to everyone’—but not to any particular end. We weren’t doing the package; we were just being good observational documentary filmmakers.”
Shooting horrific material all day was a challenge emotionally and ethically to some of the BNNtv crews, who called headquarters to say they didn’t feel right doing what they were doing and wanted to return. Rosenbaum remembers, “What I ended up saying to one person was, ‘Look, we’re documentary filmmakers. We tell stories. We have the biggest story in the century land in our backyards. What are you going to tell your kids—this terrible thing happened, the world changed, and you went home and cried? Can we only make documentaries in a controlled environment? That doesn’t seem what we’re trained to do.’ That person thought long and hard, agreed with me and went back work.”
The other challenge that the BNNtv crews faced that day was getting access, since the police and emergency service workers, by and large, didn’t want anyone shooting. And since BNNtv was working without a client initially, some of the crews had press credentials and some didn’t. But most of all, just as the crews were grappling with their own ethical sensibilities as documentary makers, they had to convince the emergency crews that what they were doing was right. “We were there to help, not to hurt,” Rosenbaum says. “We weren’t peeping toms; we were the eyes of the world, and we had an obligation to see and share these images. That’s a responsibility that I take very seriously.
“Part of documenting history requires you to understand that you’re making images that will be more for future generations than for today’s viewers,” he continues. “The images that we captured and the way New York reacted are going to be studied for hundreds of years, and we need to be responsible.”
By the end of the first day, Rosenbaum had also notified a number of his contacts about what his company was doing. MSNBC responded, and that night it set up shop at the BNNtv offices and planned an hour-long news special based on BNNtv’s material. That special, 24 Hours at Ground Zero, aired less than a week later. In addition, BNNtv developed hour-long programs for the BBC and TLC, a series of programs for the CameraPlanet.com website, and, a music video—an unprecedented project for BNNtv—for VH1—all in ten days.
September 11 has changed the way BNNtv carries out its mission. One of its goals now is to house the most comprehensive archive of images from that week. “And that means partnering with filmmakers who have images,” Rosenbaum emphasizes. “It means buying the rights to home video that people want to sell. It means empowering still photographers to post images on the Web. It means anything that we need to do so that the world will have a truly dimensional view of that day and the days that followed.”
“I think we feel an enormous obligation to make media that is productive,” Rosenbaum concludes. “As a society, we have the intellect to process what happened and respond in a smart way that makes the planet a better place.”
Thomas White is Editor of International Documentary.