In the matter of the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there are so, so many ways to approach it and give context. There are essayists writing love letters to New York. There are media analysts proclaiming that the ensuing “War on Terror” is what made Fox News influential and it has never looked back.
But looking back at the human toll of the events is what should command us on this anniversary. Absorbing the impact on those who lived through them is vital.
Surviving 9/11 (Saturday, CBC 8 p.m. on Passionate Eye) conveys something that most punditry and analysis cannot: the personal trauma. The film, a BBC production being shown globally, is a remarkably powerful work. Unfussy and plain, it is unfailingly gripping by simply letting people speak about what happened to them that day. That clear, sun-filled day when two hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Center and, while the world changed, these lives tumbled into a nightmare that is continuing and barely knowable to anyone else.
It opens with a woman jogging on a beach on a cold, cloudy day. She is Vanessa Lawrence, an English-born painter who was artist-in-residence at the World Trade Center. She had gone early to her studio near the top floor, and decided to go down to the lobby to get some tea or coffee, mere minutes before the first plane hit. “If I hadn’t gone down to the lobby, I would have seen the plane coming right towards me,” she says. “It was right at that window. It would all have happened so quickly.”
These days, she says, the trauma does more than linger. “It’s almost got worse, I think, over time. Why did I make it out? Why did I escape?” She spends much of her time finishing a painting of the view from her studio on that day, a painting she acknowledges she might never finish.
Then there is Lauren Manning. She was a new mom, a marketing executive at work on that day. “It was a place of peace,” she says. Just a nice office with astonishing views. As she explains what happened to her, the extensive burns she suffered, she has no hesitation. She’s articulate and tells her story in a kind of grim reverie, like it’s prose poetry she practised and polished a thousand times. We see her son watch video footage of his mother’s painful treatment for the 82 per cent of her body that was covered in burns. He makes a short speech about his loathing for Osama bin Laden, and walks away.
The stories don’t pile up, they simply unfold plainly. There is the firefighter who still struggles to describe the carnage as bodies landed at his feet. There is that of the man who caught the train into the city, went to his office and a short time later was trying to carry a woman on his back down the stairs to safety. There is heft in each of the 13 stories told here and filmmaker Arthur Cary lets his subjects do the talking, adding to our understanding in a way that is unnervingly humane and resonant.
A related CBC special is 9/11: Unfinished Business with Peter Mansbridge (Saturday, 10 p.m. CBC NN, listed as “CBC News Special”), in which Mansbridge posits that, 20 years on, one question remains: Did the Saudi government help the hijackers? He interviews the families of victims and the legal team working for them on getting answers. The summary of the evidence is convincing and rather like a true-crime saga that happens to include the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Also airing or streaming this weekend and not unrelated
You Are Here: A Come From Away Story (Saturday, CTV, 8 p.m.) is being repeated, and wisely so, for the 9/11 anniversary. It is a truly lovely, moving and wise film about the real people behind the story told in the hit musical Come From Away. That is, the airline passengers stranded in Gander, N.L., on Sept. 11, 2001, and the locals who took care of them. Filmmaker Moze Mossanen does a great job telling the story chronologically, following events as they unfolded that day and finding new perspectives on what is a well-known, epic tale of kindness and conviviality. Everything is seen through the eyes of people who were there, now remembering with awe and ruefulness. It’s an exquisite film, grave but often droll, and a timely reminder that the solace of kindness exists even in the most painful, frightening circumstances.
Finally, a reminder – again, related – that the filmed version of a Broadway performance of Come From Away streams on AppleTV+ from Friday. It was filmed at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, for an audience that included 9/11 survivors and front-line workers.
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