Of all the documentaries about Sept. 11, none is more intimate than "Rebirth," a new film that draws its drama not from the cataclysmic nature of the attacks themselves but from lives of five people who lost loved ones or were injured. The film, which airs Sunday on Showtime, combines time-lapse photography of the Freedom Tower slowly taking form on Ground Zero with interviews of the subjects conducted each year from 2002 to 2009. As the characters wrestle with grief, their lives take surprising and dramatic turns, and the effect is a powerful, riveting film that transcends the specifics of 9/11 and considers the universal question of how people deal with loss. The director, Jim Whitaker, talked to The Huffington Post about his experience making it.
Let's begin with the basics. How did the film come about?
JW: I came to New York city a month after Sept. 11 to a friend's wedding, and what was distinct for me about the wedding was that it was very joyful -- obviously, because it was a wedding -- but there were a number of his friends in the corner who were crying. My friend worked on Wall Street.
I woke up the next day and said to my wife that I wanted to go to Ground Zero. I looked at the debris and it was only a month later so there was very much a feeling of dread and anxiety. I happened to see a person walking around the site and there was a look of determination on her face and I thought, "One day this will all be gone and it will be different." And it gave me a little hope. And I thought, wouldn't it be great to create an experience for an audience of having them go from a sense of dread and anxiety to hope in a very short time? That's where I came up with the idea to set up cameras, and to do a time-lapse of the site, essentially.
And then, I was there a lot and feeling the emotional and human emotional weight of being there and I just had the thought, "Why not capture that in the same manner as I was doing with the cameras?" Find people who were affected by the day, interview them every year once a year, in a sort of human time-lapse, if you will, and see how they evolved from grief to wherever they went.
The film had a lot of surprises for me. I was surprised by Tanya's transformation, for example. You include a heartbreaking clip from a home video showing her with her fiancé, referring to him as her soul mate. I hope I'm not giving too much a way when I say that, by the end of the film, she's met someone new, and they now have two children. Were you surprised by how the participants evolved?
JW: Yes, on a certain level, yes, and the second year by most accounts was the more difficult year, so in a sense I saw where they were headed, but part of it was a lot of the change that was happening. The change was happening in a year-by-year basis in a somewhat incremental way. In the film it kind of happens quickly, but for example with Tanya, I could see that by her third year she had gone from a place of, "I could never imagine falling in love" to "I could explore dating." So in a certain extent I could imagine that if you're exploring dating, in a few years you could met the right person.
The stories that you tell are very dramatic, and I'm wondering if there was any sense on the part of the participants of the effect those stories might have on an audience.
JW: There wasn't. One of the things that I had said to them in the beginning was that I would be interviewing them but I wouldn't be showing them anything of the film until I had completed the film, because I didn't want their seeing themselves in the process of it to affect the process of interviewing them through a period of time. So we never had a conversation about, "Hey, wasn't that interesting what happened before and here we are now?" It was always, "Well, here we are again for another year." My mother had passed away six months before Sept. 11, so I came into that first day with an openness about grief and loss, and so in the process of interviewing them I was so curious about how it worked, so we came in with an attitude of curious questioning more than anything else. Of course, my experience was very different from what they had gone through, but I was very curious about how they experience played out and how they were dealing with it on a year-by-year basis.
Do you think you could sum up what you learned from them?
JW: I think Tanya in the film, and actually recently, has summed it up in a very interesting way, and it's sort of the same idea, and it's you do grieve, you always grieve, there's always something there in that feeling of having lost someone. But as she says in the film, it doesn't mean you can't have joy. And recently what she actually said was it's not so much that you let go, but that when new experiences come into your life you have to think of it as an adding-on. You never quite let go, but you add on. I think there's some wisdom in what she said about that.