The 2006 Tribeca Film Festival opened on a strikingly somber note Tuesday night in Midtown Manhattan with the world premiere screening of Paul Greengrass' "United 93," a dramatization of the events surrounding the crash of the fourth hijacked flight on 9/11. Nearly 100 families of those who died that day were represented at the emotional Ziegfeld Theater screening that kicked off the 5th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival. Meanwhile outside, a small group of demonstrators gathered across the street and called the movie untrue.
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The dramatic silence and blank screen that conclude "United 93" at its inevitably tragic outcome were immediately interrupted by an outburst of emotion inside the theater. Considerable sobbing and at times loud wailing emanated from the rear of the large venue where the family members were seated together. Nearly the entire audience of about 1,000 people remained in its seat as the credits rolled inside the dark theater and when the lights finally came up, guests moved quietly to the exits, some grabbing tissues from a nearby table. Outside, as family members and VIPs boarded shuttles to a reception at the nearby Four Seasons, journalists and camera crews gauged audience reactions.
Responses to Greengrass' powerful, yet quite restrained $15 million film (from Universal Studios) have been quite positive, even as many New Yorkers have expressed significant resistance to watching such tragic recent events on the big screen. Greengrass employs an observational, documentary-style in capturing the dramatic events of 9/11, entirely viewing the unfolding drama through the eyes of flight 93 passengers as well as flight personnel and military officials both on the ground and aboard the airline.
A number of actual on-the-ground airline and military officially portrayed themselves on screen in the film, which plays out in real-time once the flight takes off. Greengrass' observational approach captures conversations and reactions leading up to the passengers move to storm the cockpit in order to prevent another plane from crashing into another high-profile target that morning.
"You can't not be touched by it...its important because its kind of a play back of what happened (on 9/11)," said Tribeca Film Festival co-founder and figurehead Robert DeNiro Monday at the festival's opening press conference. "If it was not opening the festival," he said, "It would seem strange."
Tuesday night prior to the showing, DeNiro reiterated that given the festival's founding after September 11th, it was important to present, "a film that honors bravery and sacrifice."
Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal, DeNiro's entertainment business partner, has called the move to show the film a "deeply personal decision" and prior to the opening night showing, her voice sounding like it was crackling occasionally, publicly told the families that she was, "honored by your presence, humbled by your spirit." The full house crowd stood to turn and applaud the families with an extended ovation prior to the showing.
Gordon Felt, the brother of Edward Felt who died aboard United Airlines flight 93, represented the families on stage prior to the screening and advocated for a permanent memorial that the relatives hope to build in Pennsylvania on the site of the airline crash. He explained that a $30 million capital campaign is underway to raise the necessary funds for the memorial, with the U.S. government committing $5 million and Universal Studios set to donate 10% of the film's opening weekend gross to the fund.
Picking up on the discussion about the issues surrounding the film, festival organizers announced the additional of a last minute panel session. Set for this afternoon (Wednesday), the festival will offer "Visions of History & Truth: Artists in Action After 9/11" with "United 93" producer Lloyd Levin, one of the film's co-stars David Alan Basche, curator of the "September 11th Documentary Project of the Library of Congress Ann Hoog, and Paula Berry, who lost her husband in the World Trade Center on 9/11, of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation advisory council. The group will explore how artists responded to 9/11.
"Although it is difficult to re-live the wounds of 9/11," Felt said, he wanted to publicly thank filmmaker Greengrass for his efforts, "so that lessons learned in their sacrifice will be recognized forever."
"Its very humbling for me personally top bring this film to this festival and this city," Greengrass told attendees in introducing his film. "Remembering is painful," he said, "Its difficult, but it can be inspiring." Concluding he praised the power of cinema for challenging moviegoers to think about what happened. And he added, "If the film can help get a memorial built...it will have done something."
ABOUT THE WRITER: Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of indieWIRE.
[indieWIRE will publish daily dispatches and iPOP photos from the Tribeca Film Festival in a special section.]