FESTIVAL: Revisiting Ground Zero; Tribeca Fest Offers a New York Perspective on September 11
by Patricia Thomson
(indieWIRE/ 05.08.02) -- "New Yorkers aren't good victims," attests performance artist Laurie Anderson in the documentary "From the Ashes: 10 Artists." "It's not our style. We don't even know how to be victims."
That's evident this week as Lower Manhattan rises like a phoenix from the rubble, its wings shimmering with glitter and stardust. Celebrities and premieres sprinkled throughout downtown by the Tribeca Film Festival will indubitably help repair the economic and psychic damage wrought by September 11.
But while revitalization is the catalyst of the festival, catharsis is also on organizers' minds. "We knew that we wanted to pay tribute to the victims of 9/11," says festival director Trina Wyatt. "We also wanted to recognize formally what everyone in the neighborhood of Lower Manhattan has gone through."
These goals gave rise to several special programs and a panel discussion dealing with September 11. Wyatt estimates they received 75 to 100 works on the subject, mostly documentaries and shorts. When she initially volunteered to program the September 11-related films, she recalls, "I didn't know what I got myself into. There were so many. And it was basically re-living the event. That was hard."
Wyatt sorted through a pile of work that was, for the most part, first-person accounts of the attack and its aftermath. According to American University film scholar Pat Aufderheide, who has lectured on the subject, "It's not surprising that the first wave of film falls under the category of 'Me and the Event.' After all, we still don't know the history yet, because it's still unfolding." As she points out, a historical and artistic synthesis typically takes years to appear. The first major film on the Holocaust, "Night and Fog," wasn't made until 1955. "Coming Home" and "The War at Home," on Vietnam, appeared only at the end of the '70s.
Beyond their immediacy, the works that Wyatt selected all have one thing in common: a New York perspective. We see candlelight vigils in Union Square and peace marches in Times Square in "9/11"; a Staten Island family breaking news to a seven-year-old boy of his mother's death in HBO's "Telling Nicolas"; backlash attacks against an Arab-looking Brooklynite in "21"; Tribeca artists dealing with the devastation in "From the Ashes"; and a suburban child wondering why anyone would be mad at New York in "End of Summer." There are also PSAs from a Tribeca youth group and from Imagine New York, an organization soliciting input on the rebuilding of Ground Zero.
"It was a conscious decision to take the New York viewpoint for September 11," Wyatt explains. "We also wanted to recognize that this area is really the creative heart of Lower Manhattan." That's why they included From the Ashes even though it has already been circulating on the festival circuit. "How could we not show it? This is our neighborhood, our community; this is why the Tribeca Film Center is in this part of Manhattan, versus any other."
In "From the Ashes," director Deborah Shaffer follows 10 artists as they grieve and struggle with the question of art's relevance in a post-September 11 world. An aching despondency comes from Pat Olesko, a performance artist whose costume-driven work is normally zany and fanciful. "My work as an artist is playing the fool. I question whether I can continue to do that," she says through her tears. But days later, some artists are back at work. Painter Jane Hammond, dragging her brush across a large canvas, recalls how people continued making art during World War II, "even in the concentration camps. So making art in my Soho loft isn't so bad."
Given the raw emotions and resiliency that fill these works, Wyatt made sure to leave time for discussion, believing that New Yorkers are still craving a way to process and share their experiences. Many will recognize themselves in these documents of artists, parents, and New Yorkers coping. "From a programming standpoint," says Wyatt, "I couldn't be more pleased."