Film tells 9/11 survivors, responders' stories

FILE - In this Oct. 11, 2001 file FILE - In this Oct. 11, 2001 file photo, firefighters make their way over the ruins of the World Trade Center through clouds of dust and smoke at ground zero in New York. Photo Credit: AP

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For seven years, 14 cameras captured the ongoing rebuilding of the World Trade Center in five-minute time lapses that produced 900 hours of footage that took a Hollywood producer two years to edit.

The result is an untitled documentary that runs one hour and forty minutes by Jim Whitaker, whose credits include "American Gangster" and "Robin Hood."

"I would say that - yes - this is the most film I have ever edited," Whitaker said in a recent interview.

Time lapse images captured on 35-mm film of a growing World Trade Center site will backdrop the film's focus - documenting the stories of 10 grieving 9/11 survivors and the experiences of first responders, said Whitaker, who conducted interviews for five years.

"I think the film brings hope," Whitaker said. "But it is very difficult to watch the struggle that finally emerges to a better place."

There is no narration in the film. "This is an interaction of the evolution of the people [affected by 9/11] and the evolution of the site," he said.

Whitaker said the film aims to help the public understand trauma and grief, and inspire survivors of tragedy and disaster that recovery is possible. He said the goal was to go beyond the Hollywood blockbuster standard and "try to make it pure and honest and that wasn't easy."

Whitaker said he was emotionally moved when visiting Ground Zero a month after 9/11. "I looked at the debris and in a moment I felt that one day - if I was patient over time - it would look different and evolve. I had an odd feeling of hope."

Brian Rafferty of East Rockaway is the chairman of Project Rebirth, the organization that raised about $3 million to fund the documentary. "Jim is as un-Hollywood as you could imagine . . . This is a man who debated whether he should be a Jesuit priest," Rafferty said.

Early clips of the film can be seen at the 9/11 Memorial Museum on Vesey Street. Plans for its release in upcoming film festivals, theaters or television have not been finalized, creators said.

Rafferty, a college philosophy major turned foreign investor consultant, said he wondered if the film could be a source of inspiration to those intimately affected by 9/11.

His father-in-law Pete, a retired FDNY firefighter from East Rockaway, was the litmus test, he said.

"My father-in-law knew what I was doing, but didn't ask questions," Rafferty recalled. "He didn't want to reflect on this because he lost a lot of friends. Then one day he asked me: "What about that film - the World Trade Center film?"

The family sat down and watched the film's trailer. "You could see he was engaged and there was rapture," Rafferty said.

When the film was over, Rafferty's father-in-law - "a great, big man who isn't demonstrative with his feelings" - turned to Rafferty. "He grabbed me and kissed me on the cheek. He felt we honored the FDNY, and that was a huge relief for me."

Proceeds from the film will be used to open a Project Rebirth Center that will be a depository of the film's extensive footage that can be used for research in studying post-traumatic stress disorder and as an archive documenting the rebuilding of Ground Zero.

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