Filmmaker Jim Whitaker

The director-producer discusses the five people featured in Rebirth, his feature-length documentary about the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

After visiting Ground Zero following 9/11, filmmaker Jim Whitaker was determined to capture on camera NYC's resolve to pick up the pieces. The result is his feature-length documentary Rebirth and the non-profit Project Rebirth, which promotes the unique preparedness needs of first responders. Whitaker began his career creating socially conscious films to raise money for non-profits. He was president of Imagine Entertainment Motion Pictures and worked on such notable films as Cinderella Man, Friday Night Lights, 8 Mile and American Gangster.


Tavis: “Rebirth” is the acclaimed new film from Jim Whitaker, which follows the lives of five people and their personal connection to the attacks of 9/11. The film made its debut at Sundance and is now playing in New York and here in L.A. This Sunday night at 9:00 p.m., on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, you can see the film on Showtime. Here now, some scenes from “Rebirth.”


Tavis: Jim, in your own words, of all the things that you could have called this documentary, why “Rebirth?”

Jim Whitaker: Well, it’s kind of interesting. When I started the project I had hired a locations guy to figure out with me how to get into the site. We were having a lot of conversations, going up under the buildings, determining where we’d put cameras, and we began to have a conversation back and forth.

At a certain point he said to me, “Well, we’ve got to find a name for this, right?” He said, “How about ‘Project Rebirth?'” Everything about the film and the project had been very organic, and I thought that sounds right, that feels right.

What happened was over time, as I started to work with the film, edit the film and come to its completion. The film, because of the journeys of the participants, was so much about rebirth, that their lives went to a different place, that it just became evident that the movie really should be called “Rebirth.”

Tavis: I’m going to talk in a moment about these five persons that you focus on in the project. How difficult was it on the occasion of this tenth anniversary to get these persons to relive – rebirth is one thing; having to relive that is quite another. How difficult for them to relive these stories to you, or was it not difficult at all?

Whitaker: Well, what I was amazed by is they were very open and courageous, all of them. They came to it with an openness to it, and they had an incredible sense of the time we were going to be going through, meaning a long period of time.

But what I noticed was after the first couple of years it was almost as if they were kind of pleased to come back and have a conversation, because a lot of people had stopped talking with them about it, and every year I came back and said, “Let’s sit down and let’s talk about what you’ve been through this year.”

So as time went on a kind of relationship formed where we were really moving through the idea of what did you experience, how did you experience the loss and how are you experiencing the recovery? I think in a sense it was hard because the subject matter was hard, but I think by the end of it they felt a kind of sense of relief, a sense of an ability to let it out, if you will.

Tavis: I was in a conversation with some friends the other day and we had a fascinating talk amongst us jump off around the notion of whether or not for us in this room it felt like it had been 10 years. We were all pretty much in agreement that for none of us did it feel like 10 years, that a decade had passed.

I posited in that conversation that one of the reasons I think that we feel that way is because given the age that we live in, the media puts these stories in front of us all the time, so you don’t ever get any distance between now and then, because every day there is some reference, there’s some video, there’s some conversation. There’s always, again, somebody hearkening back to 9/11, so it doesn’t ever feel so distant. That was my own assessment in this conversation.

I raise that to ask for the persons who’ve actually had to live with this horror, who are intricately and intimately connected to it, as you point out in this film, did it for them, does it for them feel like 10 years?

Whitaker: Well, I think it does, in the sense of certainly when they’re watching the film they get to live through the 10 years, right?

Tavis: Right.

Whitaker: The pain and the difficulty is kind of always there, and I think the challenge for them is and has been to sort of move to a place where it’s been a very different place, but they’ve gotten there. The time has moved pretty quickly, in a sense. It has for them.

Tavis: But how do they move when everything around them – this is, again, my assessment, not theirs or yours – but how do they move when everything around them holds them from moving?

Put another way, again, if everywhere you look there are references and reminders all the time, how do you experience that rebirth? How do you move?

Whitaker: Well, what is very different about it is unlike a loss that some of us may experience, loss of a mother, loss of a father, brother, the event of the day is constantly being brought up.

Every year they have to come back to it. In a sense, I was asking them to come back to it, too. So you’re right that the kind of grief that they were experiencing, which was traumatic from the day, is very different in that it’s brought up again.

It has made it, I think in some respects it’s made it more difficult, but I think this anniversary, I think – it’s very interesting. I was talking to my wife this morning about it and I think sort of – I experienced this a little bit on the five-year anniversary – I think the idea of getting to the 10-year anniversary, there may be a sense of just a beginning of a different kind of letting go that could happen.

I don’t know what that will be like, but I’ve had a couple conversations with the participants in the film and they’ve expressed that sense that there might be a slightly different, a change in the feeling of things beyond the 10th anniversary.

Tavis: Before I jump quickly to these names and just try to give the audience a sense of who they’re going to meet when they get a chance to see the documentary, these five persons that you focus on, is your work on this project done now?

I ask that because when you said a moment ago that for them the tenth anniversary is a little different for them, are you done chronicling this now at 10 years?

Whitaker: Well, I’m done chronicling in interviews. In other words there was a certain point in the film where in the fourth or fifth year they made what felt like a very dramatic change to a different place. They started here and then ended up here.

I realized that the film was really kind of announcing its own ending, and I always said that if that was the case I was going to let that be the case. The cameras, however, are going to stay up until we expect or I expect around 2015. We have a partnership with the memorial and museum at Ground Zero and we’ll be creating programming within the museum, one of which is an installation, a room that people will be able to go in and literally have the feeling of the construction from kind of beginning to whatever that end point will be, and that’ll be a certain point in time.

So on one level, the film will continue in terms of the physical rebuilding of the site, which will happen for many more years.

Tavis: Let’s top-line these five persons who you focus on. I should mention you started out with 10 persons initially.

Whitaker: Yes.

Tavis: And through a process got down to these five.

Whitaker: Yes.

Tavis: In no particular order, top-line for me Tim.

Whitaker: Tim is a firefighter. He was there on the day, survived, lost 93 friends, and in particular lost two friends. The journey for him was one of dealing with the survivor’s guilt that he felt and how to overcome that feeling through working through it.

Particularly he worked for Rudy Giuliani on the presidential campaign, and now has kind of found himself coming to really the other side of it through a lot of, as all of the people in the film, a lot of hard work.

Tavis: Brian.

Whitaker: Brian is a salt-of-the-Earth construction worker. His brother was at Ground Zero, he was a firefighter. Brian went down there on the day to find his brother, surveyed the site, went in and started to go to work, found his brother’s remains, and then stayed there to rebuild.

What he didn’t expect is that three years into it he started to experience post-traumatic stress, and his journey is about how to get through that PTSD to the other side of that.

Tavis: Tanya.

Whitaker: Well, Tanya lost her fiancé, Sergio. Immediately went to Miami, a different place, a place she called her sanctuary, and began a process of slowly healing, allowing herself to sort of experience love and then eventually fall in love and find another family and another way with two wonderful – with Ray and now her children.

Tavis: Nick.

Whitaker: Nick lost his mom on that day. His experience was one of dealing with the loss of his mom and then the kind of – what all of us would experience, which is he started at age 15 and by the end of it is 23, so it’s watching him go through the adolescence of going from being a boy to becoming a man, and the challenges of all those things that were going on in his life, those big decisions as we move through life. But he had a void, which is the loss of his mom, and how to deal with that.

Tavis: And the last of these five is Ling.

Whitaker: Ling. If one could say that healing comes from the inside and that spirit is the way you look at life, her spirit is indomitable. She was burned over three-quarters of her body – she was on the impact floor – and went through a series of operations that left her in a place that’s very different physically than where she was in the very beginning.

But what you see in the film is really her emotional spirit. She decides that by comparing herself to others that there is a different way to look at life, and if she can do that then she can kind of find humor and find a way to get to the other side that way. It’s remarkable, what and how she handled all that.

Tavis: It’s 10 years of hard work. It’s done by Jim Whitaker. His new project is called “Rebirth,” now in L.A. and New York. Special airing on Showtime on Sunday night, the 11th, the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

There’s a companion text to the project. It’s called “Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors.” That is the companion text to this “Project Rebirth” documentary. Jim, congratulations on your work and good to have you on.

Whitaker: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Thank you.

Whitaker: Just a pleasure.

Tavis: My pleasure to have you here.

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Last modified: September 8, 2011 at 4:32 pm