Indie Documentarians Make Last Year a September to Remember
By Jana Germano
Since filmmakers' responses to last September 11 were as immediate and urgent as the event itself, broadcast television had an abundance of timely programming from which to choose.
Several relevant documentaries were in production before that fateful date. Already in the works was National Geographic's Frontline Diaries: Into the Forbidden Zone (Charle Poe, Michael Davie, producers)—most notable for journalist Sebastian lunger's exclusive, in-depth interview with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the anti-Taliban rebel force assassinated before the show's broadcast. For two years prior to September 11, PBS' NOVA had been partnering with The New York Times on the Emmy-nominated Bioterror, an in-depth investigation of the potential for germ warfare that was suddenly, frighteningly relevant.
Following September 11, both NOVA and Frontline focused on timely programming. NOVA produced Why the Towers Fell, which follows a team of engineers as they investigate the exact causes of the collapse of the New York World Trade Center's Twin Towers, while Frontline , thanks to significant funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for post-September 11 programming, produced such documentaries as Muslims, which profiles Muslims in Iran, Nigeria , Egypt, Malaysia, Turkey and the US. Predominant among its themes are the perceived threats of globalization and Western influence and the struggle among different Islamic groups to define the role of Islam. Looking for Answers, another Frontline program, traces the roots of the Islamic terrorist network to two important US allies in the Islamic world—Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
In some cases, mainstream media collaborated with independent filmmakers, who presented an authentic, ground-level perspective. CNN aired Beneath the Veil, which was made before September 11 when Saira Shah, an independent British journalist of Afghan decent, donned a burqa to document the dangers of life as a woman in Afghanistan under Taliban rule and captured the shocking public execution of women in a soccer stadium.
CNN also broadcast Shah's sequel, Unholy War, in which she returned to Afghanistan to a Northern Alliance-controlled area to search for three girls she had previously interviewed who witnessed their mother murdered by the Taliban. Both films earned Peabody Awards and were nominated for Emmys.
Sometimes the collaboration with independents was based on their close proximity to the tragedy. In CBS' 9/11, French filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet captured the only images from inside Tower One before its collapse. In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01 (Brad Grey Pictures/Kunhardt Productions/HBO Original Programming), the hour-long documentary that aired on HBO in May, and will air again this month, was compiled from 500 hours of footage shot by over 100 amateur and professional filmmakers, who were on hand to document that tragic day. In Military Diaries, which aired on VH1 through out the summer, executive producer R.J Cutler supplied 90 US sailors and soldiers stationed on the Arabian Sea and in Kuwait and Afghanistan with video cameras to present viewers with a first-hand look at war.
While many extraordinary documentaries emerged after September 11, garnering wide audiences and critical acclaim, some of that programming lacked the perspective of under represented voices. Many independent filmmakers, intent on capturing the range of viewpoints that weren't being aired, responded to calls for projects from grassroots media arts groups. In its Call to Media Action collection, Third World Newsreel collaborated with the Black Documentary Collective and the Asian Arts Alliance to present the work of traditionally marginalized groups. The Black Documentary Collective's films added the dimension of issues that the African-American community had been dealing with before September 11, such as racial profiling. Dorothy Thigpen, Newsreel's executive director, says, "The [Newsreel] collection gave [the African American community] another way to talk about those issues within the context of 9/11." An example of the strength of independent films to allow unpopular opinions and critical perspectives to surface is vividly represented within Newsreel's collection by Mark Boulos' unsettling Self-Defense. Through an interview with a Taliban trained Mauritanian man living in New York City, the film gives voice to someone who wants to help prepare the world for Islamic rule.
Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt, who, with Caveh Zahedi, curated a media project entitled Underground Zero, recognized that "collective action would be more powerful than isolated individual action and would receive more attention."As an alter native to what they perceived as mass media's narrow representation of the events, Rosenblatt and Zahedi produced two programs of September 11 films composed of 31 one—to ten-minute shorts by experimental and documentary filmmakers.
Now that these collective projects have taken root, groups such as Third World Newsreel will continue to add new works, allowing its collection to re-define itself organically over time. National Video Resources' compilation of September 11 films, which was created to help promote racial tolerance and understanding and is now being streamed on its website (www.nvr.org), will also be an ongoing collection.
Other independent responses to the events of September 11 continue to evolve on the Internet, affording the advantage of accessibility to a wide and inclusive audience. D-word, an on line community of international documentary professionals, launched War and Peace, a collaborative video project that is being streamed on www.D-word.com and has screened at festivals. On the PBS website (www.pbs.org), Independent Television Service (ITVS) has streamed one-minute videos from nine culturally diverse filmmakers who responded to the question, "How has your life changed after September 11?" Launched last summer on ITVS' website (www.itvs.org), Rob Mikuriya's Face to Face project shows through a series of personal stories what it's like to resemble the enemy by comparing the racial distrust and hatred experienced by Japanese Americans during World War II with what Arab-Americans are encountering today.
But has the need to deconstruct and analyze the events of September 11 diminished over the last year? According to Doug Block, who initiated D-word, "People don't want to talk about it at all anymore." Based on declining calls regarding their September 11 collection, Third World Newsreel's Dorothy Thigpen also feels that people are not as interested as they were in the past.
Will this necessitate a change in the filmmaker's approach? Will filmmakers and producers move away from the anecdotal towards the analytical? As Thigpen says, "People are now putting things in perspective." War and Peace is particularly interesting for the international perspective D-word 's members from 27 countries provide. Block says some filmmakers from countries that have survived their own horrors wonder why the US is overreacting to September 11.
To continue exploring difficult questions, media groups will call for work that addresses issues that have risen out of September 11. Third World Newsreel will create a compilation for films dealing with political and economic topics affecting communities of color, such as civil liberties, privacy issues and racial profiling. National Video Resources has added 35 videos to its Viewing Race collection, which deals with such topics as human rights, civil liberties, gender issues and the Arab American and South Asian communities in the US. These films are available to schools and libraries to help educators use them as curriculum to generate discussion regarding race and ethnicity.
The collective power that animates these compilations can also help fuel broadcast distribution efforts. On the anniversary of September 11, part of Rosenblatt and Zahedi's Underground Zero project will air on Cinemax, while HBO will include part of the project in its Frame by Frame program. The Sundance Channel also has picked up six of the films. The compilation was shown in August at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and the Experimental Media Arts Festival in Germany offered to help distribute the program in Europe.
Two independent projects also will receive prominent national airings this month. New York filmmaker Pola Rapaport's September Eleventh: Eyewitness, which juxtaposes images of the Trade Center's missing people and construction crews with voice-over accounts of what her friends and neighbors saw as they viewed the event first-hand, will be shown on the Sundance Channel. On September 4, the first night of America Remembers week of September 11 broadcasts (see North American Broadcast and Cable Premieres), PBS will air Caught in the Crossfire. David Van Taylor, Brad Lichten stein and Calvin Skaggs' film about three Arab-Americans living in New York City who experience the tensions of being Arab-American immigrants. The policeman, journalist and Lutheran minister featured in the film also, as Taylor says, "defy the limited set of stereotypes usually seen on television ."
As a significant collective voice, independents can raise questions that mainstream media tend to ignore. Perhaps it took an event as profound as September 11 to help open more doors for independent filmmakers, and these voices and visionaries hopefully will be able to continue to exert their influence on mainstream media.
Jana Germano is a freelance writer covering film and media issues. She can be reached at Jana@erols.com.