This eye-opening and disturbing movie is about a woman, Tania Head, who completely fabricated a story of being a 9/11 survivor. She so ingratiated herself into the survivor world that she was appointed the head of the survivors network. I am still shaking my head and speechless that a person could do something so blatantly false and get away with it for so many years. The Woman Who Wasn’t There is being released on multiple VOD platforms today.
Former Today show host and newswoman Meredith Vieira is branching out into producing and this film is from her company. She answered some questions about it by email.
Women and Hollywood: What drew you to be a part of this film?
Meredith Vieira: The incredible story. Angelo Guglielmo, the director, started this project as a survivor advocacy film. He was interviewing Tania and the other survivors about their experiences on 9/11 and challenges since for their organization, the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network. It was while he was in the process of those interviews that The New York Times revealed Tania to be a fraud. She disappeared. He re-interviewed all of the other, real survivors, who reacted on camera to the shock and anger and sadness and betrayal they felt about Tania’s lies. And he came to us with 80 hours of footage of these incredible, raw, honest, emotional interviews, including Tania’s, who tells her own story. When she’s telling her story on camera, you absolutely believe everything she’s saying to be true, just as everyone around her in life who heard her story believed it to be true. Even watching her interview now, knowing the truth, we are still completely engaged by her. It’s chilling.
WaH: As a person who has a background in news how do you think this woman got away with this for so long when so many things were know about 9/11?
MV: I think people were and, to a lesser degree still are, incredibly sensitive about and to anyone who was directly touched by 9/11. And, if someone says “I’m a 9/11 survivor”, you don’t say “prove it”. There was a trust in that community because its people who had this traumatizing experience, which they still struggle with, and were seeking others who shared that experience so they could help and support each other. Tania became a part of the group like anyone else, sharing her story on the message board, and eventually, going to meetings. There was nothing fishy about it. At first. Also, and this is what makes the story and Tania as a character even more fascinatingly complicated, she was doing great work on behalf of the survivors. She became the voice and heart of that community. She got them included in the 9/11 anniversary events, which they hadn’t been to that point, and was important to them. One survivor says she saved his life because he was having such a hard time emotionally and psychologically after 9/11 and she gave him the strength to go on. She was this beacon for them because if she could survive and thrive after what she had been through then they should be able to too. Can you imagine if the example by which you’re living your life, that gave you reason to stay alive, turns out all to have been a lie? It’s very hard to reconcile. In the film, the survivors also talk about hindsight. They never compared the stories Tania told them about her life but, had they, they would’ve noticed inconsistencies. But, again, there was no reason to doubt her. And any oddities in behavior at that time were chalked up to understandable post-traumatic-stress.
WaH: I found the story incredibly fascinating and incredibly sad, especially for the other survivors. What lessons can we take away from this?
MV: I hope it’s not to distrust everybody. What amazed me in talking with the survivors after the fact was, as hurt and angry as they were and still are, there is a capacity for forgiveness. I think that’s an incredible lesson.
WaH: One thing that was missing for me in the film was some motivation or a discussion with experts about why someone would perpetrate such a fraud. Was there any exploration done on that?
MV: You know, we made a conscious decision not to include armchair experts in the film and only tell the story from the point-of-view of people who actually knew her and could speak from their personal relationships with her. There is a section in the film when the characters offer several possibilities for why she did it: she wanted attention, she wanted acceptance, she wanted to be a part of something. Her childhood friend also tells a story about a car accident she was in when she was a teenager, after which her personality changed and she was living partly in reality and partly in illusion, which is the theme of the film. We wanted the film to spark conversation and inspire the audience to discuss those very questions: why she did it, their opinion on her… And it has! Every time we screen the film for an audience, you would not believe how lively the post-screening Q&As are! And any time someone watches it, they want to have a 45 minute conversation about it afterwards. The film is being shown in schools and libraries around the country with a specific discussion focus on psychology, on faith, and on ethics because it’s a compelling case study to dig into.
WaH: What types of movies are you looking to release with your company? You’ve done features and docs. Is there an overarching theme to the type of material you are drawn to?
MV: Amy Rapp, my producing partner, and I are drawn to character-driven material. We’re developing and producing movies and TV, fiction and non-fiction, studio and independent, broadcast and cable, theatre, and web so our slate is really diverse. But the commonality in all of the material, be it comedy, drama, suspense, or anything, is that it’s driven by authentic characters and takes you inside a unique world, or story, and/or has a unique voice or point-of-view.
WaH: What is the most challenging thing about having your own production company?
MV: I think it’s the patience you need. I come from news so I’m used to a very fast cycle and turn-around. Something happens, we put it on the air the same day. The amount of time these projects take to develop and get off the ground is astounding to me.
WaH: What lessons do you take from your previous work into your current work?
MV: It’s all about storytelling. It’s finding the compelling story, the engaging character, and figuring out how to tell the story.
WaH: After all the work that you did on the film do you have any better answer for Who is Tania Head?
MV: I think she’s a really troubled woman who maybe even believed her own story at times. I wonder if she got in over her head and was in too deep to get out of it. I would guess there’s definitely a mental imbalance there. But we do, in the film, dig into who she really is, which is not a 9/11 survivor. We found out where she’s from, who her parents are, what her childhood was like. The big continuing mystery is who is she today? 3 years after she disappeared, Angelo spotted her on a street in New York and happened to have a camera with him. That encounter is the last scene of the film.
WaH: Do you have any advice for young women trying to get into the news business or the production business?
MV: Yes, work hard! Do internships and work your butt off to learn as much as you can and prove yourself. Do everything to the best of your ability. Take any internship you can get, even if it’s not in the exact area of your interest. All experience is good experience. And, sometimes, the experiences that tell you what you don’t want to do are as important as those that tell you what you do want to do. Be motivated, be smart, be nice…and have fun. Be in this business because you love it.
Fourteen-time Emmy Award winner Meredith Vieira is a special correspondent for NBC News and the host of the syndicated weekday version of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.” Her Film/TV/Theatre production company, Meredith Vieira Productions, executive produced “Return“, starring Independent Spirit Award nominee Linda Cardellini, and produced the critically-acclaimed, ratings-record-breaking documentary, “The Woman Who Wasn’t There” is being released on iTunes, Amazon and other digital platforms on January 8, 2013. Join the conversation on Facebook.