The Peoples of New York
“These two towers represented a certain stability in our city, just the fact that we human beings are able to accomplish something like that.” Recalling the World Trade Center, Rob Santana, resident of Jersey City, postal worker, and self-described “amateur filmmaker,” speaks with apposite earnestness, and not a little nostalgia. September 11th, he says ruefully, is his birthday. And so, in 2001, he took the day off from work. “It’s no longer my birthday,” he says. “It has become something else.” His footage from that morning shows “smoke billowing” from the towers, as he gasps: “Someone’s gonna pay.”
Santana’s tape is among the many pieces—professional and amateur, some 200 hours of footage by 28 New Yorkers—assembled by Steve Rosenbaum for 7 Days in September. Available on DVD this week, the film recaptures New Yorkers’ incomprehension, horror, and disbelief. Handheld images rock and careen. Some are familiar from television: the plane-shaped hole in the first tower, views from the ground looking up, from Brooklyn looking over, figures emerging out of densely ashy-smoky backgrounds, people in tears, shaking as they gasp and wonder. Others are less well-known: people puking (“It’s unreal, this is a fucking sick movie”), people guiding others, people dazed and stumbling, a policeman picking up a bit of debris as he walks. A reporter’s voice, muffled as if it’s on a distant tv, describes what she sees, the image on screen illustrating for you: “A black sooty smoke. The city looks like it’s in ruins.”
“I wasn’t thinking about making a film,” says Gary Pollard, identified as a “documentary filmmaker.” “I just happened to be there and it was history in the making.” This idea becomes a thematic refrain for the interviewees in Seven Days, as they remember their personal experiences of 9/11 and also as they try now to contextualize and make narrative sense of the chaos. “You can’t wrap your head around it,” he says. “So you just film it.”
Teri Klein, a video journalist, remembers the emotional milieu as well: “I’ve never encountered a New York like I encountered that day. It just showed the spirit that everybody had, the overwhelming compassion for each other.” The film, above all, about that spirit, as it emerges on 9/11, and then persists through the following week. Filmmaker Alan Roth filmmaker recalls, “It’s funny because I never liked the World Trade Center. I always though that, from a political point of view, these two buildings represented what I thought was evil about the economic system in its relationship to poor people around the world.” And yet, he says, he was moved by the responses to the attack. He rode his bike to the Village, where he found what he describes as a “circle of prayer,” which begins with a woman speaking to anyone who pauses to listen: “Let us use this situation to remind us of the power that we have, and the responsibility that we have, to be transformers in the world.” At this point, the circle begins to sing “Amazing Grace,” Roth’s camera passing slowly over them, hands joined and arms uplifted.
The interviewees—all appearing against sober black backgrounds—endeavor to situate their memories amid wreckage and confusion. King Molapo, a filmmaker from Soweto, describes his experience on September 12th. “It was pretty quiet, quieter than I had ever seen New York, in my short visit here,” he says. “I was looking for comfort, something that I could use to think that, ‘It’s okay to be in New York, after all.’” He comes across a “night vigil, people gathered after a long day of watching the news, seeking and, most of all, company. Molapo’s camera shows their faces, their candles. Everybody that was I the city had one thing ion common, fear, hope, love and comfort for one another. So I felt part of New York, at the time.” As if to demonstrate and also complicate this idea, the film juxtaposes his footage with that of another gathering, where people alternately sing “Give Peace a Chance” and discuss the impossibility of engaging with others who feel hopeless and unheard, whose rage is so deeply entrenched and relentlessly motivated.
Bill Clinton greets people on the sidewalk, the National Guard arrives (“Wow, this is like living in a war zone,” observes one filmmaker), and on Friday, it rained. “It was so symbolic,” says video journalist Rasheed Daniel, because everyone was just beat.” More confrontations arise, as people begin selling supplies, giving away food to the volunteers, and join in protests against overzealous patriotism: “The American flag propagates violence,” writes one young woman on the sidewalk, in chalk. Daniel begins taping the writer, just as another man advises that a dogwalker have his pet defecate on the message. A rowdy discussion breaks out. “That was the part where I witnessed an hour-long confrontation in the middle of Union Square, between the peoples of New York.” As these peoples argue, the focus becomes war—whether or not to seek peace or bomb “them” off the face of the planet. “It was just emotion,” remembers Daniel. “Just raw, gutted emotion.”
As one man insists that he doesn’t know “how to process this,” a girl bursts into tears. Neither do I. We all have so much rage inside of us.” The man embraces her. I’m sorry, I don’t want to hurt anyone.” Another shouts from the background, “Why don’t we all stop arguing, and start reflecting?” Aha. “That’s what we’re doing,” offers yet another. “We argue and then we hug.” While the music here and elsewhere begins to feel cloying, the emotional intensity of the moment is inexorable. “Aesthetics matter a lot to me,” says Rosenbaum, creator of MTV’s much missed self-documentary series, Unfiltered. “So to see the skyline scarred like that made me angry. But it was also an awakening to the complexity of the world we live in.”
The many peoples who appear in 7 Days in September—angry and devastated adults, curious children—exemplify this complexity. “I think it’s really horrible,” says one boy, his voice trembling “that thousands of people just ended… There’s no need for this.” He goes on to list how the many world wars will escalate and then reduce again, to sticks and rocks, post-apocalypse. Rosenbaum observes, “The kids get it. In some ways kids understand the complexity of the story a lot more than adults do.” And then, sadly, this same boy, so sad and scared, asserts that he believes, despite his dismay, that “we should kill them.” And that’s the most alarming aspect of anyone “getting it.”