Project Rebirth
Tom Lappin

Category: Doc Premieres Section
Synopsis: An exploration of rebuilding in the wake of the 9/11 attacks featuring interviews intercut with time-lapse photography of Ground Zero's reconstruction.
Director Jim Whitaker: "I wanted to put one of the cameras on the American Express Building, so [cinematographer] Tom [Lappin] and I went with the building manager ... he took us down to the 47th Floor, which was unoccupied at the time. I walked over to the middle of the building and said, 'If we could put a camera here, this would be perfect.' He pulled out a piece of chalk and marked off the space. Today, there's a door inside a conference room that looks like it's going out the window."

The fabric of people's lives, ripped apart by 9/11, ever so slowly knits back up in this moving documentary.

PARK CITY -- Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres. The impact of 9/11 on the United States has been filtering through our movies for nearly a decade now and will undoubtedly continue on into the next century. At this point in time though, few if any have measured with more clear-eyed optimism and compassion the journey of those most immediately connected to the event than Jim Whitaker's "Rebirth."

The director achieves his goal of a "human time-lapse" where he follows five survivors and family members as they come to terms with grief and injuries and struggle to forge new lives.

The not-for-profit film is all part of Project Rebirth, sponsored by a number of organizations including the Aon Corp. in memory of the nearly 3,000 victims including its own employees. Other facets of the project include a multi-screen installation at the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum and a center to create multi-media tools to aid those working with victims of disasters and violent conflict.

Rebirth is both a work of art and of the heart. His five heroes -- and the word never has seemed more appropriate -- have opened up their lives to him in interviews and scenes involving their families, caregivers and colleagues. Meanwhile, Thomas Lappin's cinematography and 14 time-lapse cameras placed around Ground Zero chart the progress of the space above the hallowed spot as temporary and then permanent buildings rise in honor of the fallen.

Tanya loses her fireman fiance, her "soul mate," in the attack and therefore all direction in her life. Ling makes it down from the 78th floor of the World Trade Center only to discover horrific burns across her body that will lead to multiple surgeries and precarious health.

Brian, a construction worker, loses his youngest brother when the towers fall and finds himself drawn to Ground Zero from the first day as he continues to work on the reconstruction. Nick, a high school student whose mom perishes, becomes estranged from his family as he tries to stay close to his mother by following her career path to Wall Street.

Fireman Tim survives the collapse but his mentor and friend, Captain Terry Hatton of Rescue 1, does not so his dedication to another's life finds him working in national security and then for Mayor Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign.

The yearly snapshots of each hero come with a kind of suspense over everyone's mental health and end with epiphanies that fiction could never equal. It begins with the moment, caught on videotape, when Nick delivers his eulogy at his mother's memorial service and a tiny sparrow lands on his head as he utters the word "mother." The bird allows the boy to pluck it from his head and stare at it in his hand, only flying off when someone else touches it. "There's no doubt in my mind that my mom was there," he says.

Ling is the only one physically damaged by the attack, gruesomely so, yet she may be the least damaged mentally. Her ready laugh and good cheer help, of course, nevertheless she despairs that her life has become "useless."

Brian's post-traumatic stress doesn't kick in for several years as he throws himself into the clean-up and reconstruction effort. But when it does, he clearly becomes a different man. Tim likewise gets drawn back to Ground Zero following his sojourn into politics, looking for some kind of closure that isn't forthcoming.

Tanya is torn-up by self-pity, envy of other people's happiness and conflict over how to "move on" when she really doesn't want to. Sergio was the center of her universe, and as she experiences a return to dating, intimacy and even marriage, that hole never quite goes away.

Recovery -- rebirth -- does happen but it's interesting how two interviewees put it: "Healing, I guess it's there" and "I guess I'm pretty happy to be alive." Notice the "I guess" in each instance. It may be a quirk of speech but there's this quandary that accompanies any happiness: Do I deserve this? I guess so.

The film has so much to say not just about our nation's struggle to recover from 9/11, but about survivor's guilt, despair and recovery from trauma in general. These people experienced 9/11 directly, but as a nation we all suffer from its effect. Here's hoping Rebirth can launch a kind of collective recovery.

Not only could this film stand a sequel but one can only guess how it ultimately will fit into the whole Project Rebirth concept. As the first finished product from this project though, Rebirth is awesome. Every choice Whitaker has made, from his decision not to show any of the footage from that terrible day to whatever methods he used to get his heroes to express themselves so candidly, pays off beautifully. The word "inspiring" gets overused but Rebirth is really and truly inspiring.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres
Aon Foundation/Oppenheimer Funds/Lower Manhattan Development Corp./U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development
Director: Jim Whitaker
Producers: Jim Whitaker, David Solomon
Director of photography: Thomas Lappin
Music: Philip Glass
Editor: Kevin Filippini, Brad Fuller
No rating, 105 minutes