PRODUCTION: Art as Catharsis; NYC Filmmakers Take to The Streets on Sept. 11
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 09.27.01) — New York City is home to hundreds, maybe thousands, of professional and would-be filmmakers, so it comes as no surprise that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were captured on cameras, from all angles and every neighborhood. Documentarians, media artists and just about anyone with a digital video camera suddenly found themselves amidst the biggest story of their lives, taking to the rooftops and the streets to catch the action. indieWIRE talked to a sampling of people who grabbed their cameras on Sept. 11 and the days that followed, and found several common threads: the conflict between creative expression and exploitation, the need to capture history, and the important human stories that will trickle out in the days and years to come.
“You just had to document it,” explained filmmaker Michelle Handelman, who, like many, immediately picked up her camera and went to the roof after first hearing the news. “I was compelled.”
Aaron Edison, a filmmaker and freelance cameraman, also couldn’t help but document the events. Edison took his PD 150 digital camera and slowly made his way down Manhattan. “It was completely surreal,” he said. “I realized it was a piece of history and about as big an event as I’d ever witnessed. I got the first World Trade Center crash, and then it dawned on me: there was a potential, longer story.”
Edison discovered the event was more than simply about the numbing images of plane crashes and building collapses. His Iranian-American roommate happened to be one of the artists who shared studio space in the World Trade Center on the 92nd floor, as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (which is now, needless to say, in ruins and lost one of its artists Michael Richards). Edison plans to make a documentary about the international community of artists once housed on the 92nd floor.
“The important work of healing and processing is going to be in these longer stories,” commented Edison. “One of the strange things people on the frontlines realized was that there weren’t going to be survivors; there weren’t even going to be corpses. You didn’t see human beings injured; you saw scenes from a disaster movie. The moments of shocking humanity came from strange places, like the papers, the volcano of papers, floating around.” Edison continued, “After the big pictures, we now need real behind-the-scenes stories.”
Sean Adair, an experienced documentary and freelance filmmaker, who is currently helping Edison with his documentary project, was one of few people to capture detailed images of the second plane’s impact. After discovering his videocamera’s batteries weren’t charged, Adair picked up his 35mm still camera and went up to his roof in Stuyvesant Town on 20th street. “I just had the urge to look at it more closely,” he said. “I’m not a newshound or disaster chaser.”
Adair sold his photographs to Reuters just days after the attack, begging the question: was he exploiting the tragedy for his own financial gain? “I did have some thoughts about it,” Adair admitted. “But as time goes on, people have to see these images.” Adair also said, “Being a freelancer and not making huge amounts of money and with jobs canceled that week, I didn’t feel dirty. I’m going to take this money and spend it, and keep this economy rolling.”
While Adair may seem hardened, three days after the attacks, he said he broke down when coming face to face with someone near the Trade Center in desperate search of a loved one. “That’s when I had my moment of grief,” he added. Adair has since begun helping on another project, “The Art of Peace,” a film that was already in-progress before the attacks.
Ralph Ackerman, “a documenter” and 38-year vet of street and underground filmmaking, took his miniDV camera with him every day to record what he ran into. “One small young girl came up to me on the subway when I was taping and told me I was insensitive to the victims,” he related. But Ackerman was not daunted: his urge to record the events comes from experiences covering rallies in the 1960s. “If you were an anti-war protestor,” he said, “officials would confiscate the film and make their own versions of it. We learned a long time ago that when the shit hits the fan, you have to go out and document it yourself and protect the footage.”
Some filmmakers, however, couldn’t bring themselves to tape the devastation. “I couldn’t bear to even look at it live on the street, much less take out my camera,” documentarian Doug Block (“Home Page“) stated in an e-mail. “I stayed home with my family and was glued to the TV set. I haven’t done a lick of work on my new doc since then. I turned down a grisly job offer from the BBC to shoot an agonized mother as she waited for any word of her missing son.”
Independent filmmaker Maya Churi (“Letters from Home Room,” and a former indieWIRE editor) also felt queasy about videotaping. “After about 10 minutes we got out the cameras, but I didn’t like filming,” she related. “It didn’t feel good at all. There are some things, the tragedy and pain of others, which I don’t think should be filmed unless you are a reporter, and I am not. Therefore, something about it felt exploitive and I stopped.”
Missy Galore, a multimedia artist, on the other hand, was among those who took to the streets with her camera, and like Edison, Adair, and Ackerman, she believes that documenting the events of Sept. 11 was essential. (She’s planning, along with others, to create a commemorative project from the footage.) “It’s really important that we have these images. These are amazing moments of history that we can’t forget,” she explained, her eyes wet with tears. “I’m so glad we went down there. I’m so glad that I could see what it looked like when the world was covered with ash. . . . Art is such a catharsis.”