Over 10 years, filmmaker Jim Whitaker followed five New Yorkers in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Four lost loved ones and one survived the World Trade Center attacks with extensive injuries. But with its straightforward structure — yearly interviews with the subjects about changes in their lives — Rebirth conceals an epic documentary.
And if place can be a character, then Whitaker has captured a sixth subject, Ground Zero, whose life after 9/11 is captured by 14 time-lapse cameras. As we see the real estate renewed as the Freedom Tower, we also witness broken spirits heal and go through their own process of emotional reconstruction.
Whitaker is the former president of motion pictures at Imagine Entertainment (the production company co-founded by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard), with executive producer credits on American Gangster, Cinderalla Man and 8 Mile, among others, but his roots are in documentary filmmaking. I spoke with the director as Rebirth opened in New York City. It is set to air on Showtime on Sunday, September 11, 2011.
Schartoff: Over the course of 10 years, people can change a great deal. I am thinking of those Michael Apted Up films, where his subjects moved through different stages about how they felt about the camera re-entering their lives. Did you encounter anything like that while making Rebirth?
Whitaker: Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case. Part of the reason was that in the first couple of years they were constantly being asked about what they were going through. After the first two years, that all started to slow down as far as the outside world was concerned. By the third year, they had a place to come. We were doing 3-to-5-hour-long interviews (once a year). So they had a place to come and just sort of talk about this. And I really wanted to know how their year was, and what were they going through at those points.
By the fourth or fifth year of doing the interviews, I noticed that they were all universally, across the board, climbing out from where they were to this new plateau. Once I noticed that, I realized that the film was sort of announcing its own ending. I always said to myself that I would have to listen to the film to find out when it would be naturally ending. By the time we got to the final interview there was a sense we were all in agreement that we had reached the end.
Schartoff: You followed the lives of these five people for some 10 years. What is it like to let go of them now that the film is finished?
Whitaker: You know, I had this particular moment during the editing phase. I was probably within 10 percent of finishing the film. I was sitting with my editor at this moment where I felt very intensely overwhelmed at this moment. I had to just excuse myself and slip into the bathroom where I spent about 20 minutes in there. A lot just came to the surface right then and it was also the point where I began to let things go. I mean, you never really completely let it go, it’s a process that happens over several different points in time.
Another level to it, and my connection to the film, was that I lost my mother about 6 months before September 11. I went into this project with an openness and a curiosity and I basically entered into a lockstep with the subjects of the film. I learned alongside them how we move through grief and how we move through loss. That moment I experienced in the editing room was sort of the culmination of all that.
Schartoff: I have to ask, how does it feel coming to New York with the film? Were you nervous?
Whitaker: I wasn’t. [Editor Kevin Filippini and I] were first and foremost editing this movie for New York City. That was our true north. I felt a responsibility to the participants to tell this story as honestly and truthfully as possible. And I felt if I did that, the end result would be that those most affected by what happened on September 11 would connect with the film. The idea was to put a mirror up to Ground Zero and a mirror up to these people and let them tell their story, and for me to keep out of the way. They’ve all seen and really enjoyed the film.
Schartoff: That’s got to be very gratifying.
Whitaker: It is! I showed Rebirth to each of them individually, and interestingly enough, the first thing they all said right after seeing the film was that they wanted to know the other people. I thought that was really interesting. It’s gratifying that the film has given them this bond they can share.
Schartoff: Rebirth opened in Los Angeles about a week before the New York City debut. What was that like?
Jim Whitaker: Good, good. It’s been a long journey to get to this point so it’s great having people seeing it in a theater. A great thing.
Schartoff: And what’s the reaction of someone living in California?
Whitaker: They’ve been very moved by it. They are feeling the emotion of it. Rebirth is certainly about 9/11 and the events on that day, but there’s also an element of this film that touches on the larger idea of how we move through loss and grief.
Schartoff: Where will you be on September 11, 2011?
Whitaker: I’ll be in New York City. I don’t really know what I’ll be doing other than observing the day like everyone else.
Rebirth is currently playing in select cities, including New York City. The films airs on Showtime on Sunday, September 11, 2011, at 9 PM. The nonprofit Rebirth Project continues to photograph the World Trade Center site. Find out more at projectrebirth.org.
Rebirth poster and photo of Jim Whitaker courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
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