Documenting Memories of 9/11

My son is in the quilt, I made his body shattered. I was given only pieces of his body.

Denise Allen

This is a place of reverence, and remembrance, not a revenue-generating tourist attraction, which is what they are treating it as. They have a gift shop right there. This is obscene. This is the same as the people selling stuff on the street. What they are doing is they are making a profit. I feel sorry for all the kids who passed a hat and donated money to it.

John Riches

On September 11 a decade ago, Stanley Praimnath stepped into his Fuji Bank office in the South Tower as his phone rang. It was his mother, he says, and she wanted to know if he was okay. The call was followed by others, from his brothers, also asking, “How are you doing?” Shainmath remembers, “I’m saying to myself, ‘Its’ not even nine o’clock. There’s a lot of love here.'” Having been in the elevator just moments before, he’s unaware of what had just happened to the North Tower, at 8:46am. “Nobody explained to me that a plane hit the first building, nobody,” he says. When he looked out the window, he says, “All I saw was chunks of fireballs coming down from the sky.” Then, he saw United Airlines Flight 175 coming at him.

Prainmath’s recollection is one of many assembled for Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience, a documentary premiering on HBO on 11 September and affiliated with a photography exhibit from HBO and Time magazine. Prainmath was under a desk as the plane hit the South Tower, and as he looked around the office following the explosion, he saw that everything was flattened — except that desk.

Unable to get out on his own, he was fortunate again when his cries for help were actually answered, by Brian Clark, an executive for Euro Bank who heard him, reached over a wall, and pulled him up. “It was one fluid motion,” says Prainmath, “I don’t know how he did it.” He hugged Clark and kissed him: “I don’t know how to thank a man who just saved my life.” Clark remembers too, that Prainmath said to him, “We’ll be brothers for life.” Together they made their way down the stairs from the 81st floor, disobeying instructions to head up, instructions that many others followed. When they reached the street, Clark says, “We ran for a block and a half.”

As Prainmath and Clark’s incredible story opens Beyond 9/11, you become aware that the film is only partly about getting “beyond” that day. It’s also, like all the memorial media produced for the 10th anniversary this weekend, is also about not forgetting — about the trauma, outrage, fear, and, courage that continues to remake the world since 9/11.

Many documentaries airing this week on television offer a standard effort to remember by ordering, by placing talking heads near footage that is now familiar, the Pentagon smoking or the Towers falling, people running through smoke and debris or George Bush speaking in Sarasota, framed by schoolchildren. Most these efforts to order — including the Smithsonian Channel’s Stories in Fragments, Discovery’s Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero, National Geographic Channel’s Inside 9/11: The War Continues, Nick News With Linda Ellerbee: “What Happened?: The Story of September 11, 2001, or Biography’s When Pop Culture Saved America — are structured as you’d expect, with self-reflective interviews and haunting photos, cell phone footage and sad piano scoring on the soundtrack.

And some documentaries, like Beyond 9/11, which turns more complicated by each minute, also acknowledge the conflicts and contradictions that resist the impulse to order. Image after image shows devastation and pain, illustrating unbelievable stories. In Rebirth — which follows five survivors over the past decade and premieres on Showtime on 11 September following its theatrical release this week — Ling Young recalls the chaos that began that day and hasn’t quite ended for her. She was in her office on the South Tower’s 86th floor, where she worked for the city’s Department of Taxation and Finance. “All we saw was things flying,” she says in Rebirth. “You could actually hear the glass cracking. We could see glass all over the place papers all over the place and we could actually feel the heat coming toward the window where we are.”

The heat burned her, though she had no idea how badly at that time. With third degree burns “all over the place,” she has since undergone multiple surgeries: in 2002 and 2003, she shows her arms, still covered with massive welts and long red twisting scars, still in need of treatments. She used to plan ahead, she says, but “It’s like unknown to me now. I know I will have something done, but I don’t know what it is.” Interviewed over eight years, Ling Young eventually comes to a kind of peace, serene in a pink print dress, able to smile. “If you look at me this side,” she says, “You don’t know I got burned anyway. So that is good enough.” When she poses for photos now, she says, she makes sure she’s facing one way, and everyone else in the frame just has to accommodate her. “It happened, and I’m alive,” she says, “That’s all I tell people. I was given a second chance, that I really could have died that day.”

People who did die that day include Sergio Villanueva, Tanya Villanueva Tepper’s fiancé (“I don’t want to feel that he’s that distant from me, that I have go remind myself where we were”), Rescue 1’s Captain Terry Hatton, the beloved mentor of firefighter Tim Brown (“I saw the top of Number One lean over and disappear”), and banker Catherine Chirls, mother of Nick, just 15 at the time. As they work through their anguish on camera, tearful and tense at first, the film breaks up each year’s interviews with other images to show time passing — a Phillip Glass score over home videos (kids and cakes and spouses) and time-lapse photography of the changes at Ground Zero, workers and light and shadows performing a strange, not precisely comforting abstract symphony of movement. Chirls writes a book by film’s end, which he says is about “the search for my mother, the search for my real mother. I only knew my mother at home.” Home video shows her as he remembers her, “kind and loving and giving.” Though he went on to work on Wall Street in an attempt, perhaps, to be like his mother, now he realizes, “It’s not what I want to do with my life.”

Letting go of the expectations he imagined for her, Chirls looks more serene than Brown, who voices the difficulty of the process: “It has made me tired, thinking about it,” he says. “I’m just done with it. I can’t live there, I can’t live in that place. I want to live in this place.” Like several other interview subjects in Rebirth and in Beyond 9/11, Brown survives “survivor’s guilt.” Following a long pause, he sums up, ” I guess I’m pretty happy to be alive.”

If Rebirth and Beyond 9/11 look at how individuals have endured after 9/11, the History Channel’s remarkable 9/11: The Days After assembles what might be called “found footage,” much taken by citizens on that day, in New York and in DC. As a throbbing soundtrack enhances your sense of dread, a woman hears about the collapsing Towers on the TV news, then into the street from her apartment to fetch her son from school (“I feel guilty,” she murmurs to a passing friend, “I should have gotten him earlier”), reporters gather alongside firefighters and police, and the scope of the devastation is increasingly revealed to be huge. It’s the start with limited images, tight focuses on individuals, that makes the expanding tragedy so daunting. Even if you feel as though you’ve “seen this before,” The Days After is surprising, sometimes because of the naïvete people display, and sometimes because of their growing understanding of what you already know.

“Keep walking,” says one man, his cell phone to his ear as someone else is recording him on video. “You might see an arm or a leg or something,” he reports, “But you couldn’t even tell they were bodies, it was like dog food.” As the young mother hurries to her son’s school, her dark glasses hardly hiding her fearfulness, the camera following her glimpsing others headed elsewhere. “We’re getting word that another building there is extremely unstable and there may be other building collapses is what we’re hearing,” reports a first responder, the shot identified as a block or five blocks north of the Towers. Another camera follows firefighters to Ground Zero, smoke everywhere. One gasps, “Steel columns, twisted and mangled. Dear Jesus, I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”

The next day, as more information emerges, reporters stand up at a series of sites — at the Pentagon, or outside the homes of people who are still “missing loved ones” in New York or on United 93. Cameras catch people crying and deliberately hiding their faces or moving out of frame. “Is this a picture of your dad?” a reporter asks a teenager. She cries and names him, as the reporter’ gently presses he, his mic coming in and out of frame. It’s a terrible moment, and reminds you of how impossible the moment was and remains, especially in the desire to documents, to name names, to show pictures so that missing people might still be found.

“To talk about the reality of all this,” says a reporter at Chelsea Piers, “A skating rink is being converted to a makeshift morgue.” But “the reality of all this” — only partly represented by weeping survivors and ceaseless workers — remains elusive. Images pile on top of images, suggesting attempts to look forward in the days after, as suddenly single parents cope with children who don’t understand, as funerals and memorial services, then Thanksgiving and Christmas roll over survivors. It’s time passing, sometimes marked in the stamp on a video, and it’s time frozen too.

Each of these documentaries recalls the horror of the day. Some also point to that brief time — so long ago now — when the U.S. seemed of a piece, united in grief and resolve. As Tom Brokaw puts it in, “I think that’s sad, I don’t think it’s a worthy tribute to the people who died and it ought not to be our legacy. We have to find a way to rekindle that flame in some respect.”

That “flame” was in itself a fiction, of course, a fiction that allowed recovery and also inspired, in some people, a desire for vengeance, for an order that never quite existed before. As President Bush recalls his understanding of events in Rebirth (and as he also did in NGC’s George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview), his journey to Ground Zero put him in a particular spotlight: “There was a lot of emotion and people, the rescue workers,” he says in Beyond 9/11, “wanted their president to make it clear that whoever had done to the damage to 9/11 would face American justice. I had made up my mind that was going to be the case, anyway.” This much is clear in interviews in Beyond 9/11 with Pal Wolfowitz, Don Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney. If Afghanistan was an obvious “first priority” for what would happen next, after the attacks, Cheney says, “Iraq was of concern because you had a situation which we were focused especially on this problem of weapons of mass destruction.” Yes, and black is white and Luke, I am your father.

Cheney’s inclination to dark side would have effects on millions of people, including James Yee, who was, shortly after 9/11, assigned to serve as the Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo Bay. He says that when he bean raising his “concerns about prisoner abuse in Guantánamo, I thought I was being recognized for doing a good job and being given what we call R&R rest and relaxation.” His trip home to Seattle in September 2003 was aborted, however. “When I landed at the Jackson Naval Station [in Jacksonville, Florida],” he recalls, “I was swarmed by customs officials, immigration officers, intelligence officers. That included army counter-intelligence, naval criminal investigators and also the FBI.” They accused him of “carrying some suspicious documents,” which he was not. They held and abused him in the Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina. “Nobody knew that I was arrested,” he says, “It was like I had disappeared in America, in my own country.” On his release in March 2004, all charges were dropped.

James Yee’s isn’t the sort of experience that is typically remembered on 9/11 anniversaries. Indeed, as Daisy Kahn, Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, observes, “Most Americans, their perception of Islam is largely shaped by the events that happened overseas. If they see a stoning of a woman or they see a suicide bombing, these are very powerful images.” What Americans don’t see are images of abuse in their own country, or of Muslims who are doctors or teachers or street vendors in the U.S., “very integrated in America, happy to be here, living in a democratic society, living among people of all faiths, and really disproving all the things that the extremists say.” The irony is hard to miss, and Beyond 9/11 keeps a kind of visual distance, all its interviews framed the same way: subjects against stark white backgrounds. The lack of visible contexts in underlined when Kahn describes her sense of horror following 9/11: “At first I couldn’t believe that there were people that would actually hate people that they did not know, or would just hate a group of people because of the actions of a few. It seems to me very unfair as an American. We don’t do that.” And yet, we do.

This process, the normalization, institutionalization, and politicization of “hate,” is the focus of a three-part series The 9/11 Decade, produced by Al Jazeera English. The series looks at how “Both sides would make mistakes” following the attacks, and how these mistakes have shaped the decade. The episode The Intelligence War looks especially at the ways these “sides” south and deployed “intelligence,” arranging it to deceive others, to empower themselves, and to sustain the power structures already in place. News footage tracks the trajectory that’s now well known, the shift of American focus from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Iraq (Condoleezza Rice: “There are clearly links between Iraq and terrorism; this is a regime that has hostile intent toward the United States.”). And the program provides maps and voice-over descriptions of plans to thwart and instigate violence.

As the CIA and the U.S. military worked together and apart, national borders became blurry, legal concepts regarding detention and “enhanced interrogation techniques” were manipulated. Looking back, officials have questions. “It just didn’t make any sense at all,” observes former CIA officer John Kiriakou, “Moving everybody to focus on Iraq.” Other sorts of breakdowns — in sense, in self-image — are visible in all the 9/11 memorial documentaries. Most often, this is described as a function of grief and anger, a loss of focus. The Intelligence War suggests otherwise, that the breakdown was also a bolstering of preconceptions and ideologies, that the extremists on all sides took 9/11 as an occasion to retrench and escalate.

Memories warp and fade, they support assumptions and they shake loose all moorings. As 9/11: The Days After ends, a TV report indicates that workers have found a fireman days after the attacks on the Towers. A reporter narrates what you see: “I’m watching them carry a body out of the uh, Ground Zero. Uhhh,” he sighs, overcome by the image. And this is what 9/11 has been and remains, history conveyed by images, history reconfigured to shape what comes after, history that is unfinished.

RATING 8 / 10