When done well, short films serve as a calling card to up-and-coming directors. Judging by the response to the post-9/11 short "The Falling Man," director Kevin Ackerman's phone lines should be busier than a PBS telethon, the only question is: what will the callers say? "The Falling Man," perhaps the most controversial short in this year's Festival, is loosely based on the iconic photo of the man whose free fall from the burning Twin Towers was featured on page seven of The New York Times on September 12, 2001. The photos of the jumpers upset the public to such an extent that most newspapers effectively stopped running them. So far, the audience response to "The Falling Man" has been positive; however, Ackerman does acknowledge that the Festival issued him a bodyguard after he received several pieces of hate mail.
"The Falling Man" is not the first work to examine the jumpers, as they are now called. Artist Eric Fischl's "Tumbling Woman," a commemorative sculpture for those who fell to their deaths on 9/11, was unveiled at Rockefeller center roughly nine months after the attacks and then abruptly covered in cloth due to the public's outcry. "I was trying to say something about the way we all feel," Fischl later commented, "but people thought that I was trying to say something about the way they feel." In a similar vein, the television docudrama "Rudy" initially included footage of the jumpers, but after intense discussions it was edited out. And then there is the controversy over the photo itself, taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew.
Although the Tribeca Film Festival was founded five years ago in response to 9/11, until now there have been few films actually about the tragedy, and even those have been few and far between. "United 93," "Carla Cope," and "The Falling Man" are the first narrative films to tackle the actual events of that day, and the question that has been asked over and over again is "are we ready?"
Even if audiences are ready to see movies about 9/11, "the jumpers" remain one of the most disturbing and taboo subjects that day. According to USA Today, 291 people, some 8% of the known victims of 9/11, jumped out of the World Trade Towers that morning, and Drew's photo serves as a brutal reminder. Unlike "United 93", "The Falling Man" does not attempt to create heroes or construct a cohesive narrative. Shot for a mere 6,000 dollars, "The Falling Man" uses iconic imagery from 9/11 -papers strewn about, spinning chairs, people covered in ash, the 9/11 memory wall, and the falling man photo itself--to chart the inner-landscape of an unknown man who was compelled to throw himself TO a sudden and unspeakable death.
The idea for the film came from an Esquire Magazine article by Tom Junod, also called "The Falling Man." Ackerman won the rights to the article through Esquire's Celluloid Style Competition, in which a select group of film students make five-minute shorts based on previously published Esquire articles. In the article, Junod searches in vain for the true identity of the man in Drew's photo, only to come to the startling conclusion that his anonymity is better left preserved. For Junod, and for Ackerman, the falling man represents the unknown soldier. This interpretation will be hard to swallow, and some will never be ready.