But for 105 minutes Sunday afternoon, as the world premiere of "9/11: An American Requiem" -- composed of interviews with 9/11 first responders -- was projected, these strangers sat unified, listening to 18 gripping tales about Sept. 11, 2001, and the battle it continues to be for certain Americans.
"For a lot of the first responders, their actions on 9/11 destroyed their lives," Jane Yahil, 67, of Stony Brook, a retired historian and Holocaust survivor said after seeing the film. "But still they stayed. Just like the Holocaust, this terror brought great acts of hope and heroism."
The film, shown in the university's Staller Center at the Stony Brook Film Festival, is part of a larger oral history project. That project, "Remembering 9/11," has interviews and videos of more than 150 first responders.
"In some ways this film is redefining 9/11," Dr. Benjamin Luft, the film's executive producer and the director of Stony Brook's WTC Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, said before the start of the movie. "I think for the first time we are getting very accurate and thoughtful remarks from people who experienced 9/11 and its aftermath."
During the past 10 years, more than 6,000 first responders have received care from the WTC Stony Brook treatment program.
After the film, Luft, who was introduced to a standing ovation, asked the audience to acknowledge the first responders in attendance. One by one, more than 15 individuals scattered in the crowd stood and, for 20 seconds, the audience serenaded them with deafening cheers and applause.
"They're champions," said John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, which helps those harmed by 9/11. "These are the best people America has to offer," added Feal, who also was featured in the film.
The film documented each of the chosen first responders' accounts, from the moment they heard about the initial plane crash, to the sights and sounds of Ground Zero, to how their lives have been affected since.
"Raw emotion. Truth. That's what this movie is about," said Feal, 44, of Nesconset. "I wouldn't say this is closure, but it is definitely a major part of the healing process."
Moviegoers heard tales of grown men and women being thrown dozens of feet by 140 mph gusts of wind and giant mounds made up of dust, concrete, paper and body parts. Hearing all of this told directly by the first responders, Luft said, was essential when putting the movie together.
"Because the outside narrative is kept to a bare minimum, I think this film has a unique place in the 9/11 story," he said.
One particularly moving interview was with Rafael Orozco, a retired NYPD detective and first responder, who told of taking a little girl and her father from among the observers around Ground Zero and into the restricted area to the edge of the pit where the towers once stood. He said he wanted her to see what really happened on 9/11.
"People have a very short memory," said Orozco, 54, of Central Islip. "In a few years when they have a beautiful park there and new buildings, I guarantee there will be some people who think that 9/11 wasn't really that bad, that it couldn't have happened. But they cannot forget. That's why I wanted her to see with her own eyes what it was like."