Toronto fest: Documentary tells stories of 9/11 survivors, victims’ families
As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks is marked today, a new documentary, memorialising the personal narratives of many who were directly impacted, had its premiere as a special event at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
The documentary, Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, brings together the emotional stories of these persons, including survivors, family members of victims, rescue personnel and onlookers. These stories were recorded in the months following 9/11 by artist Ruth Sergel, who created a wooden video booth and transported it to New York, Washington DC and Shanksville in Pennsylvania, the three sites of the attacks, and invited people to share their experiences of that day and those following.
In introducing the film, which premiered as a special event at TIFF, co-director Bjorn Johnson described the project as a “collection of extraordinary but little known testimonies” and a film not about what people “saw on September 11, but rather what they felt and, more so, how they processed their trauma”.
In the film, Ruth Sergel outlined her objective: “I could see the damage being done to people when they couldn’t tell their own story in their own words. It was just planes, planes, planes, building down, building down. There was absolutely no space for more complicated stories about what people actually felt.”
Among those recounting their experience was Joanne Capestro, who was working on the 87th floor of one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. As the first plane hit, she didn’t know what had happened and thought it was an earthquake. “We shook so strong,” she said in the video recorded months after the tragedy.
There’s William Sekzer, whose first thought was that this was the building where his son worked. As he recalled, “Realising you’re helpless is a terrible thing for a parent.”
The videos collected are raw, voices choke and tears flow as the horror of that day is remembered.
Juxtaposing those recollections are videos and news footage from the unfolding attacks on that eventful day, moving from Lower Manhattan where the WTC stood, to the Pentagon, where another plane struck, to the small town of Shanksville in Pennsylvania where the aircraft, that passengers managed to seize control of from the Al-Qaeda terrorists, crashed, leaving no survivors.
It captures the words of the rescuers, including those at Ground Zero in New York, only managing to find “buckets” full of body parts. Among those remains was a bone fragment of William Sekzer’s son.
The film’s last section revisits those who were featured in the video. Twenty years later, they describe how their lives had changed. Among them was Joanne Capestro who said “you have to be able to persevere”.
In its description of the film, TIFF said the directors, Johnson and David Belton “interspersed Ruth Sergel’s testimonies with news footage from the time to create a powerful narrative of how those massive, cataclysmic events affected specific individuals, and how those memories have come to reshape lives. The result is a remarkable portrait of both trauma and resilience”.