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Then-President George W. Bush speaks to the Grade 2 Class of Booker Elementary School on Sept. 11, 2001. The children in that class are the subject of a new documentary, 9/11 Kids.Courtesy of CBC Gem

Anyone old enough to remember the events of that day can tell you where they were on Sept. 11, 2001. And most of us can recall exactly where then-U.S. president George W. Bush was as the tragedy unfolded, and how awkward and fascinating that moment was.

Bush was sitting with children at a school in Sarasota, Fla., to launch his education-reform bill, No Child Left Behind. News cameras captured the moment live as a man approaches the president and whispers in his ear. We can’t hear what he says, but we know what he’s saying: A second plane has crashed into the World Trade Center in New York in an apparent terrorist attack. Bush sits there, stunned, and begins to read the book The Pet Goat. The moment raises so many questions. Why isn’t Bush doing anything? What is he going to do? How is this moment going to change the world?

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White House Chief of Staff Andy Card whispers in Bush's ear, telling him, 'A second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack.'Courtesy of CBC Gem

The new documentary 9/11 Kids, premiering on CBC and the Documentary Channel on Thursday, aims to answer a different set of questions.

“Who were those kids? What did they remember from that day? What could they possibly tell us about America post-9/11?” executive producer Steve Gamester asks.

The documentary, produced by Toronto-based Saloon Media, a Blue Ant Media company, is a fascinating look at a group of people who were present during a defining moment of history and how the events of that day have shaped their lives.

“It was always one of those stories that fascinated me,” Gamester says.

Not all of the 16 children who were in that classroom wanted to participate in the documentary.

The several whom the filmmakers followed for a year provide a captivating glimpse into how the changes wrought by 9/11 shaped their lives.

There is the son of Latino immigrants who reflects on the xenophobia that has characterized so much of life for visible minorities in the United States over the past two decades. There is the soldier who discusses his feelings of patriotism. There is the entrepreneur striving to live the American dream. There is the young man who, struggling to find work, is sent to prison for drug trafficking, and a young woman whose brother is shot by the police.

Their lives allow the filmmakers to explore the themes of the importance of education and economic opportunity, immigration and tensions between law enforcement and the African-American community post-9/11.

Sixteen children, all six or seven years old, were in the classroom with President Bush that day.Courtesy of CBC Gem

“We set out to tell a film about 9/11 and were quickly amazed how the story went elsewhere to discover that these deeper undercurrents of American history had a much bigger impact on these kids than 9/11 did,” Gamester says.

Near the end of the documentary, the young people who were in that classroom years ago, now in their mid-20s, reunite with their teacher. They laugh and they talk and they hug. They reminisce about how strange it was to have been part of history.

As the film makes clear, the brief moment of national unity that followed the events of 9/11 quickly gave rise to much ugliness and division in American life. Yet most of the men and women in the film remain fundamentally optimistic about their futures.

“The optimism really was genuine. And you do begin to wonder if that is something very American,” Gamester says.

It’s the message of their resilience in the face of so much hardship, and their belief in a better future, that Gamester wants viewers to take from the documentary.

“I hope they’re inspired by these kids, who all have amazing spirits.”

9/11 Kids airs Thursday, April 23 on CBC & CBC Gem at 8PM (8:30 NT); documentary Channel at 9PM ET/10PM PT; and will be available to stream on CBC Gem as part of the Hot Docs at Home series.

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