When Jim Whitaker, at the time an executive at Imagine Entertainment, visited New York City a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he knew at once that he wanted to do something to record the process of rebuilding Ground Zero. The resulting film, Rebirth, would take Whitaker a decade to complete. The film combines time-lapse photography of Ground Zero and interviews with five people whose lives were forever changed on September 11th to create a compellingly personal document on the power of hope and the ability of the human spirit to recover from near-unimaginable trauma over time.
Whitaker took the time to chat with MovieMaker about his reasons for making Rebirth and what he hopes audiences will take from his film.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): In the years since 9/11, your interview subjects had to recover from the horrible losses they encountered on that day; did anything about their stories and how they dealt with their grief surprise you?
?Jim Whitaker (JW): In about the fourth and fifth year of interviews, every subject began to take action in their life to move from their place of loss to a place of healing. While each took a unique action, what surprised me most is that they all seem to independently decide to make a change towards a more healing place. At that moment, I recognized that the film was announcing its own ending. ? ?
MM: As a documentary, Rebirth is different from most; usually documentaries about a specific event focus on its historical or political implications, but Rebirth is exclusively about the impact of 9/11 on those who lived through it. What motivated you to make such a personal film, and were there any documentaries you were inspired by as you put your film together???
JW: My mother had passed away six months before September 11th. When I visited Ground Zero a month after the day, I was in a very open place with my own grief and therefore I think very open to the grief of others. When I began the interview process, I discovered I was lockstep with the subjects going through my own grief. In truth, I was extremely curious about how grief worked. How do we overcome loss? That curiosity led me in many respects. As for influences… Errol Morris has been an influence.?
?MM: The time-lapse footage of Ground Zero was shot on 35mm film with a multiple-camera system that started rolling in March 2002 and will continue to roll until 2015. Did you ever have any second thoughts as to whether you’d be able to undertake such a massive project? Was the time-lapse footage always going to be such an integral part of the finished film???
JW: The film emerged in stages. We began by putting up the cameras to capture the history of the site in 35mm. That was the most important impetus for me, Tom Lappin (the director of photography) and David Solomon, my co-producer. After spending time at the site, we realized the emotional loss was so great that we felt a real need to capture the emotional impact. In many respects, I never really had the chance to have any second thoughts. We just knew we had to do it. We also had the backing of an amazing Board of Directors whose support was unwavering and to whom I will be forever grateful. ?
?MM: What has been the response from people who have seen Rebirth so far? What do you hope audiences will take from the film?
??JW: The response, beginning [when Rebirth premiered at] Sundance, has really been quite amazing. We feel very fortunate that people have embraced the film so warmly. In many respects, the film is about how we all experience grief and work to overcome it. The hope that I have for audiences to take away is just that: Hope. There is a light at the other end of the tunnel. It is possible to come to a better place.??
MM: Is there anything you’d like to add???
JW: When you see the film, you will notice the hundreds and hundreds of people who worked on the film and made it possible. I want to thank them. They deserve it.
Rebirth is currently screening in New York and Landsdowne, Pennsylvania, and will begin its Washington, D.C. theatrical run on September 9th. For more information on Rebirth and its companion book Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors, visit ProjectRebirth.org.