Judge Clark Douglas was quite moved by this thoughtful, ambitious documentary.
Watch the human spirit transcend the unthinkable.
Shortly after the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, the not-for-profit organization Project Rebirth, Inc. was created. The organization's goal was to support victims and early responders affected by the event, primarily using time-lapse photography of the slow-but-steady rebuilding of Ground Zero over the years that followed. Two of Project Rebirth's most significant long-term projects would be a film documenting the rebuilding process and a Project Rebirth Museum (which would largely be funded by proceeds generated by the film). At long last, the first of those projects has arrived and makes a very strong case for why this project was worth the effort.
Initially, director Jim Whitaker had intended to make a film that would focus solely on the rebuilding of the city and the time-lapse photography. However, early in the process he began to feel that individual human beings needed to be placed in the spotlight; a handful of individuals serving as a microcosm of the many people whose lives were affected by September 11th (and on another level, as a microcosm of our entire nation's collective response to September 11th). Nine individuals were followed over the course of seven years (between 2002-2009), but Whitaker only chose to use five for the final cut of the film (the other four stories will be incorporated into the Project Rebirth Museum).
The five individuals spotlighted have all been affected in different ways. Nick is a teenager who lost his mother. Tim is a firefighter who lost his best friend. Tanya is a woman who lost her fiancé. Brian is a construction worker who lost his brother. Ling is a Chinese woman who worked in the World Trade Center and suffered severe burn injuries. Whitaker checks in with each of these individuals every year, following their progress (or lack thereof) and giving us a unique, moving look at five assorted individuals going through the grieving process.
It would be fair to call Rebirth an inspirational film, as it does indeed eventually arrive at some enormously uplifting places as some of the people featured make some significant breakthroughs and are finally able to return to something resembling a normal life. However, there's a whole lot of misery and heartache on the way there. The first three or four years are the roughest, as most of these people go through some form of personal hell: Tanya can't shake her overwhelming grief, Brian is diagnosed with PTSD and starts having significant marriage problems, an embittered Nick is thrown out of his house and breaks off his relationship with his father, and Tim is thrown into an existential crisis of sorts.
Intriguingly, the one who never seems to complain much or struggle with any deep-rooted personal suffering is Ling, the only person featured who is suffering physically. She is frustrated by the ways in which her burns prevent her from living the life she used to have, but she manages to take the pain and the changes remarkably well. Her gentle sense of humor makes her an individual we love spending time with. Consider the delightful moment in which she reflects on the soothing qualities of Murder, She Wrote: "I recorded all of them on TV. It gives me a lot of comfort. This little old lady, first she knows nothing and then in a few minutes she knows everything."
The film's most potent, unspoken observation (highlighted by Ling's relatively serene, stable mental state throughout) is the startling power of survivor's guilt. Even when these people feel like they're ready to move on with their lives, they seem uncertain of whether it would be appropriate. After three years, Tanya craves an intimate relationship with another human being, but can't help but feel that to start dating again would be an insult to the memory of her deceased "soul mate." Rebirth doesn't flinch during these countless difficult moments, which makes its concluding chapters of positive change feel like well-earned, profoundly moving sequences.
In-between the interview segments, we do indeed see some of the remarkable time-lapse photography of Ground Zero slowly coming to life again (effectively underscored by the ever-reliable Philip Glass). The area certainly didn't spring to life again overnight; it wasn't the bold recovery that was initially promised and hoped for. It's a step-by-step process that has taken quite a long time, and it serves as an effective mirror image of the emotional recovery the individuals spotlighted in Rebirth are taking.
The DVD transfer is solid during the talking-head segments and time-lapse sequences, but some of the other footage of characters going about their everyday lives looks pretty rough at times (a scene in Tanya's home suffers from an almost unbearable amount of noise). Still, such hit-and-miss quality is to be expected from a documentary. Audio is also decent, as the Glass score comes through with strength and the interviews are crystal-clear. Supplements includes a commentary with Whitaker and DP Tom Lappin, an extended cut of the time-lapse photography (featured on disc two), a video piece on the creation of the time-lapse photography entitled "14 Cameras, 24 Hours" and a brief text essay from documentarian Davis Guggenheim.
Rebirth is a unique documentary experience and superb exploration of the ongoing aftershocks of 9/11. Bravo to the many individuals, organizations and crew members who worked to make this ambitious idea a reality.
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