As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., an upcoming Yard 44 and NBC News Studios documentary Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, from MSNBC Films and Peacock, takes a real, honest approach to capturing what people were feeling then, and how they are reflecting on that day now.
In 2002, New York City and Berlin-based artist Ruth Sergel set up a plywood video booth, inviting people, including eye witnesses of the attacks, from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, PA to share their experiences, with the participants totally in control of the recording.
In Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, filmmakers Bjørn Johnson and David Belton look back at raw footage from 2002 and allow some of the original participants to go through that unfiltered personal testimony experience all over again, almost 20 years later.
Johnson had been asking himself if there was another way to tell the story of 9/11 that showcases the “human story behind the tragedy,” before he found Sergel’s work.
“They weren't being asked questions, it was all self-recorded, completely unmediated, they went in there, they pressed the button, they hit record and they were free to say whatever they wanted,” he told Yahoo Canada
It's just the extraordinary spectrum of everything that was on offer, hope, loss, despair, grief, resilience, you name it, it was all there in her collection of testimonies.Bjørn Johnson, filmmaker
While no one knew what these individuals were going to say when then went into the video booth, both originally following 9/11 and earlier this year for Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, the filmmakers certainly had a lot of video footage to go through to try to curate the testimonies in a way that made sense for 90-minute documentary.
“What we’d found with lots and lots of people was that they were coming into the box to try and understand, grapple with a little bit more, what they had experienced, and trying to make sense of it,” Belton explained. “Those were the people we were looking for.”
“The guilt they felt because they left a friend in the towers, the grief they felt because they lost their brother, the bewilderment they felt at what had happened to their life… We drifted away from the people that were just giving you the events of the day and found those people that were a bit more confessional and saw it as a safe space where they could express their feelings.”
'What people felt that day'
While the film does show captivating visuals from the 9/11 attacks, which brings you right back to that moment in time, Johnson stressed, quite accurately, that “this is a film not about what people saw that day, but what people felt that day.”
That is particularly unique to this documentary and something that likely would not have been able to be achieved so successfully without the film’s emphasis on these honest, uncensored moments.
An example the filmmakers pointed out is a man in New York named Wilton Sekzer who went into the video booth in New York in 2002. He talked about his son, who worked on the 105th floor of a World Trade Center tower and how he was using his thumb to try to count the floors to attempt to determine if his son was able to get out of the building alive.
“To us, what that spoke to us was someone who was still trying to grapple with the awful, arbitrary nature of the death of his son,” Belton said. “That's not about somebody just grieving, that's about someone trying to understand the process of grief that he's in at the time.”
Other participants include a woman who was pregnant on Sept. 11, 2001 and ended up giving birth shortly after the attacks. We get to check in with her and her now young-adult daughter, in addition a number of people who survived the attacks and a man whose wife died at the Pentagon, leaving him a widowed father of two young children.
Another notable participate is Daisy Khan, who speaks about how she had to to grieve but also “defend” her Muslim faith. In her 2021 testimony, Khan speaks about being the architectural designer of the proposed Islamic community centre and mosque near Ground Zero in New York, which was met with hateful messages of “not you, not now and not here,” in addition to some subsequent letters of support.
“These letters also remind me to this day that there are two Americas,” Khan says in her 2021 video. “We’ve come apart.”
Her message is echoed by people who were on the frontlines of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, as they remember people in New York, in particular, coming together in the wake of the tragedy.
'It's a film of hope and resilience'
Both Belton and Johnson described the filmmaking process of this documentary as “liberating,” allowing these real people to guide the narrative based on their personal testimonies, not a usual process for most filmmakers. But while much of this film is connected to Sept. 11, 2001, its message is far greater.
“It's a film of hope and resilience,...and the year we went through last year, and what we're still going through with a pandemic, it feels very apt to be revisiting 9/11 but looking at it for the human aspect of how you deal with trauma, and how you deal with tragedy,” Johnson explained.
“When the people return to the booth they each do it in a unique way but they all talk us through how you deal with these things.”
Belton added that he believes COVID-19 was an “education,” realizing that Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11 could “do more” in terms of how people have dealt with their emotions.
“We've got an opportunity for people to talk about the emotional side of their lives at a time when we are obliterated by fact and counter fact all the time, everything is asserted and refuted by one side or the other, and that's the world we live in now,” he said. “This film was saying, ‘no, it's got nothing to do with that.’”
“The human condition is such that everyone will be experiencing grief, everyone will be experiencing trauma, everyone's lives have been in some shape or form, quite considerably upended.”
Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11 will premiere on MSNBC and Peacock on Sept. 8 at 10:00 p.m. ET. The film’s television debut will air on MSNBC and will re-air on Sept. 11 and Sept. 12 10:00 p.m. ET. It is also part of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with an in-person screening on Sept. 11.