Shortly after opening in select theaters last month (it hits more markets throughout September), Jim Whitaker's documentary portrait of emotional and physical rebuilding following 9/11, "Rebirth," hits DVD today. It's iW's pick of the week.
The film, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, chronicles a decade in the lives of five people profoundly affected by the 9/11 attacks. Among them: a student whose mother died, a woman who survived the impact zone with severe burns, and a firefighter who lost one his best friends.
iW spoke with one of the film's most memorable subjects, Tanya Villaneuva Tepper, a widow of a first responder, who over the course of the film gains the courage to move on to new adventures.
This might sound redundant, but thank you for telling your story. The film's an important testament to the tragedy.
Yeah, thank you. I think it’s a really important way for people to connect to 9/11 for sure, to see that in spite of so much loss and heartache, we were able to move forward and celebrate life.
When were you approached to take part in the project?
Tim Brown, who’s also one of the other subjects, played on a soccer team with Sergio [her deceased husband]. So I met him shortly after September 11 at a memorial thing in Sergio’s honor and we became best friends. He had signed on first. When they were looking for other participants, he suggested me.
Were you wary about doing the film?
I signed on around June of 2002. I was at this point where I felt like everyone was moving on, New York was moving on, and people were forgetting. So it was very important for me to share Sergio’s story. People needed to have a connection to the victims, to really understand that it was so senseless that the event happened in the first place.
Knowing that it was such a large scope, I had no reservations about it in a strange way. I trusted them right away. They were just very kind and sensitive. I clicked with them. I didn’t have any doubts that they would take advantage of me. It was an instant, 'this feels right and I’m going for it.'
How did your friends and family react? You really put yourself and your loss out there.
My friends and family are all so super supportive, including Sergio’s family. They realize the importance of historical record. For those family members and friends that have seen it, they’ve said that it was hard seeing me in so much pain. But at the same time, they were so glad to see how I was able to move through it. I have a wonderful life now and still honor Sergio. Delia (Sergio’s mom) and I have stuck together through the whole course of things. Everything seemed to have carried forward.
Most of my family and friends are moved by that, you know.
When did you see the final film?
Jim called me up about a week or so before it was done. He was working on the final touches and wanted to fly out to Miami to show it to me. so I said, “OK, great come! Let’s do it.” So the first time I saw it was in my house with Jim and my husband Ray. It was just very surreal. If you can imagine you’re seeing almost 8 years of your life play out on film. I’m also watching clips of me and Sergio and I was with my husband and I’m crying and he’s comforting me.
I was really fixed on the other subjects. I really didn’t know what their journeys were like. So I was really fascinated by what they all had gone through. So afterwards, the first thing that I wanted to do was meet the other people.
I was kind of more drawn in by the other stories. Seeing my own play out there were definitely moments when I was crying because it touched my moment of grief. But there was also a lot of joy in seeing my journey. It was so great to see my wedding and the birth of my baby.
What was the interview process like?
The setting was just a very simple setup. Our direction was simple from Jim. He wasn’t bombarding us with questions of anything. He just wanted to know what our thoughts were on the year, what it had been like. He let us go.
I had been in therapy from the beginning so I was kind of an expert at just going into my little stream of consciousness monologue. He would kind of ask questions or ask me to expand on things. But it wasn’t, “So what did you do this time.” It was very peaceful. It felt very intimate. It was me and him, a camera and a guy lingering in the back.
You revealed the most after taking long, uninterrupted pauses.
I started calling him Dr. Jim at one point because the sessions did feel very much like therapy. Then was a point when I started to realize that I had to talk a lot about the uncomfortable motivations like dating. My motivation for that was from the beginning I had always looked to widows before me as sources of inspiration.
Once my own life began to shift a little bit, I realized that I was in a position where I could help once I started to share. Because I knew I would have wanted to hear it. So I started to divulge things even though it was so uncomfortable. It was a shift in thinking.
What was doing the film like for you? Was it a form of therapy?
Oh yeah. I mean the fact that every year, right around the anniversary, I had this date with the filmmakers to talk about what I was really feeling. It was therapeutic for me to be able to talk so candidly.
With the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 just around the corner, what are your thoughts about "Rebirth" coming out?
I think it’s coming out at an appropriate time. This anniversary’s a significant one. As far as attention goes for people are not directly affected, I think the next one will be 15 or 20. And that’s sad, but it is what it is. I think that the film being timed to release at the same time when there is all this added attention is a good thing. I hope that people will see that what we did was really to honor the people who were lost and to show that in spite of such tremendous heartache and sorrow, we were able to move through it and get to a good place again.
I can’t say that for everybody who was personally affected. At least for myself, grief is something that stays with you but it shouldn’t stop you. I’ll always have grief, but I’ll always have joy in my life.
When you’re thrown into grief, I had an idea that it was something that had a beginning and an end. I struggled a lot that there was really no end. I think showing that it does stay with you, but it doesn’t stop you from still living, it kind of debunks that belief.
People who are in grief can let themselves off the hook a little bit if they’re not in a good place yet.
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