Almost everyone has a 9/11 story. They can describe where they were when the planes hit, when the towers collapsed, the days following. I have one. I was there. I watched the second tower collapse standing on Greenwich Street in Lower Manhattan.
Almost everyone has a 9/11 story but no one had one more astounding than Tania Head. She had been on the 78th floor of the south tower when the 2nd plane hit. Her co-workers all died around her. Her assistant was decapitated. Her right arm was nearly severed. Her back was burned. Welles Crowther, “the man with the red bandanna”, saved her by leading her to the stairwell. She was one of only 19 people to make it out with her life but her life, as she knew it, was over. Her fiancée had been in the north tower and died when it fell. In 2003, she joined a group of survivors who were all struggling with post-traumatic stress, and they formed an organization called The World Trade Center Survivors’ Network. Tania rose to be the leader of this group, providing support and hope to all the others and giving them a voice in the post-9/11 landscape. She hired filmmaker Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. to document their issues and efforts and gave a series of stunning interviews, recounting her journey in chilling detail. She led the inaugural tour of Ground Zero for Mayors Bloomberg and Giuliani, Governor Pataki, and the media. She became the face and heart of the survivor community. She was an inspiration.
In 2007, The New York Times wanted to do a profile piece about Tania, heralding her achievements and what she’d overcome. But, while they were digging into the story, the pieces just weren’t adding up. It soon came to light that she had made it all up. She wasn’t in the Twin Towers on 9/11, she had no fiancée, she wasn’t even in New York on September 11th…and Tania Head wasn’t her real name. Guglielmo kept the cameras rolling.
Yes, almost everyone has a 9/11 story. But none is more astounding than that of the woman who wasn’t there.
When Angelo brought us this story, I was hooked. To me it wasn’t a 9/11 film but a character-driven, psychological suspense thriller. It had themes of friendship, ambition, betrayal, deception. It touched upon the philosophical – if you do something bad but have good intentions, does that absolve you? Should you be punished or heralded? The answer is actually pretty clear-cut. You’re punished. But perhaps punished with an asterisk.
I’m often drawn to characters who live in the grey area of morality and I have found myself consistently attracted to characters like Tania. Some on TV like Walter White who becomes a meth manufacturer in order to leave a nest egg for his family before he dies. Love it. Dexter Morgan. Kills people who’ve killed others. I’m in (save for last season). Sydney Bristow. Lies to her closest friends about everything in her life because she’s an undercover CIA operative. Sign me up. In each case, part of the hook is anticipating how their loved ones will react if/when they find out the truth about the person they thought they knew. I’ve pictured myself in that position. Could I reconcile all the lies? Could I forgive?
Tania Head created a false identity to ingratiate herself into a community and did monumental, life-saving work that gave hope and strength to people who were struggling to recover from a debilitating trauma. As a character, Tania Head might be categorized as an anti-hero like Walter White and Dexter Morgan. And, in fact, “Tania Head” is a fictional character. But she wasn’t to the people who knew her, who loved her, who, they thought, were loved by her. How do they reconcile that? Can they forgive?
Amy Rapp runs Meredith Vieira Productions and is the producer of the documentary THE WOMAN WHO WASN’T THERE, which premieres on April 17, 2012 at 8pm on Investigation Discovery, presented by ID Films, and is currently playing at Quad Cinema in New York and Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles.