This is Our Pole
“This is our pole,” observes Spiros Kopelakis. He and his wife Shirley Dreifus are looking at the famous photo of firemen raising a flag at Ground Zero, the photo taken by the Bergen County Records Tom Franklin on September 11th, 2001. The pole is theirs, and the flag is theirs too, a flag they had flown on their yacht, the Star of America.
Shirley and Spiro are looking at the photo, again, for The Flag, the first original film commissioned by CNN, premiering 4 September. This time, they’re looking for signs of how this flag, their flag, is different from the flag that has since “traveled around the world” aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, as a symbol of American spirit and resilience and recovery. It remains unclear what happened to Spiro and Shirley’s flag, when exactly it went missing and where it might be now.
While The Flag ponders the whereabouts of Shirley and Spiro’s flag, it raises other, broader, variously resonant questions too, questions concerning how symbols and icons become significant, as well as how stories are told and myths are disseminated. It also considers the intersections of commercial and institutional forces with national, local, and personal needs. It asks how this this flag—visible in Franklin’s photo and other photos and video recordings of the moment—came to be so variously meaningful for so many observers in the tumultuous, ongoing aftermath of 9/11.
As the film reveals, these meanings are not only individual and sometimes abstracted, but also deeply felt and proclaimed. Interview subjects help filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker retrace the flag’s movement, its loss and its replacement, by individuals seeking to create and also sustain a story of survival against odds and even a sort of triumph.
Some deceptions may have been inadvertent, some more calculated. But it’s hard to deny investments in the flag, however it means or doesn’t mean. Barbara Ciara, of Norfolk VA’s WTKT, offers a couple of versions of this meaning, as she reports for an archival TV show and also recalls her experience reporting. Remembering the flag’s journey from Yankee Stadium shortly after 9/11 to the Roosevelt, she says, “That flag brought up emotion that is very difficult to describe. I’ve never seen so many grown men and women cry just by touching a piece of fabric. And of course,” she adds, “It wasn’t just a piece of fabric, was it?” At this point, it turns out, it wasn’t even that particular piece of fabric, the one raised at Ground Zero; rather, an inspection of the photo of Mayor Giuliani clutching the folded flag at Yankee Stadium suggests this is a replacement flag.
So guesses Jodi Goglio, director of operations at Eder Flag, Shirley and Spiro’s flag’s manufacturer, basing her evaluation, she explains, on her experience holding and measuring flags. Gauging the visible amount of fabric in Giuliani’s arms, the seeming weight and number of folds, she says, “I could have my eyes closed,” and still have been able to tell a flag’s size “by the weight of it.” The Flag underscores the precision of such guessing, by eye or by weight, as it repeatedly shows storytellers looking at photos with magnifying glasses, reading inscriptions and measuring distances by lenses used or sizes of window frames. The pursuit yields any number of resonant images, assembled in the documentary to indicate how stories are assembled by just such pieces, by repetion and alteration, by sharing and echoing.
Each bit of evidence might reveal some part of the story, asserts photojournalist Yoni Brook, who took pictures that day and has kept a collection of images (“I never throw away a negative”) that he now examines one by one, imagining that he might see a couple of moments when the flag was there—and then not there. The flag, he suggests, “is like the magical object,” one that observers imbue with value, ‘like a holiness.” Such meaning serves to bring together communities who might not know they’re communities: “It makes us feel like were bigger than just ourselves.”
Even apart from the thing—the object that may or may not be original—the story of significance is born as well by representations. As The Flag shows here, once Franklin took his photograph, the city engaged in a process of re-memorialization, an effort to reinscribe the meaning of the moment, the photo, and even the firemen, in a statue. As the Public Art Fund’s Tom Eccles recalls here, “There was kind of something slightly wrong about the whole story. We had this meeting and someone had suggested there should be more ethnically representative.” Sculptor Ivan Schwartz explains, they “said to us, ‘Okay, we’ll have one Hispanic, one white, and one black guy. And so, we were off. We staged the photo shoot and then we made a presentation to the fire chiefs.”
This effort sounds nutty, partly because you know the identities of the original firefighters George Johnson, Danny McWilliams, and Billy Eisengrein, and partly because, as Eccles suggests, there is some value inherent in what’s “real.” But The Flag presses past this idea, that an original real ever existed, and asks you to understand how every step of this image making was part of a process, however personal or public, however calculated or improvised. The storytelling after the event is of a piece with the storytelling of and by the event.
Such complication is especially vivid, if not precisely visible, as Epperlein and Tucker interview former New York Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, recalling how the flag might have been lost. He calls his brother Roddy for clarification, then holds up his smartphone so the filmmakers can record it. Thomas laughs as he listens, instructing his brother to tell the story of how a press representative from the city ‘went down” to pick yup the flag.” Roddy’s version has it that the flag in the city’s possession is the original, Shirley and Spiro flag, even after you’ve seen this can’t be so. “There are people that still swear that that is not the flag,” he says.
The question, or one question, might be whether it matters who swears what or who believes what and how these beliefs might be shared or challenged. How does a symbol come to have meaning, for whom? How does CNN come to commission a film about such a symbol? And how does loss help to enhance meaning, into a horizon of possibility?