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In Their Own Words: The Day That Belief Was Tested

Television* A PBS documentary listens as Americans talk about how 9/11 affected their faith.

September 06, 2002|PATRICIA BRENNAN | WASHINGTON POST

Ordinarily, two hours of people talking might not be particularly interesting television. But in the case of "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero," what they say is often touching and in some cases profound.

Watching people try to make sense of what happened last Sept. 11 becomes a look into the human condition.

The program, which aired on PBS' "Frontline" Tuesday and will repeat Wednesday, was made by Helen Whitney, who has made films on life in a Massachusetts monastery and presidential contenders, and an award-winning portrait of Pope John Paul II. For this one, she interviewed 850 people to find those who would make a compelling program.

"I feel that the human face and the human voice and what it is that people say when they're really being thoughtful and poetic and precise in their language is riveting," Whitney said. "A thought that is pursued naturally in all of its windings and developments can be dramatic and powerful."

She brackets her subjects' words with poignant footage and music, including Barber's always-moving "Adagio for Strings" and a blend of patriotic and religious songs and prayers and chants.

In "Faith and Doubt," people face their deepest beliefs, asking whether evil and God exist. Some are atheists, some are agnostics, others are Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. For some, their beliefs were badly shaken. For others, religious faith was a comfort. Some became cynical. Some cry as they recall the day.

A retired policewoman who lost her 23-year-old daughter, and now raises her young grandson, talks with tears running down her cheeks but seems comforted by her beliefs. Soprano Renee Fleming, who sang "Amazing Grace" at the memorial at ground zero, begins to cry when she explains that she had to look above the crowd so she wouldn't break down during her performance.

One man says he went to Rockaway Beach--where another plane crashed only days later--and cursed God for the cruel loss of life, including more than 30 of his friends. "It was too barbaric the way the lives were taken," he says. "So I look at him now as a barbarian.... I think I am a good Christian, but I have a different view and image of him now, and I can't replace it with the old image."

There also is a close look at organized religion: A Catholic priest says he recognizes a dark side underlying the attack--religious fanaticism. A rabbi says all people who claim to be religious must acknowledge "a serious shadow side to this thing." A Lutheran minister who prayed at the Yankee Stadium memorial service with leaders of other religions is battling to stay in the Missouri Synod as others accuse him of heresy. He was suspended pending appeals.

And there is an attempt to face the concept of evil. A retired firefighter whose son was lost says: God "had nothing to do with this. He was fighting evil that day like he does every day."

It was the six months that Whitney spent with monks at St. Joseph's Abbey in Massachusetts that set her on an exploration of faith. She was a new mother when she made "Monastery" in 1980, a film she calls "one of those great experiences in my life, in which a film just seems to happen like wind in my sails. It's my favorite film. It was largely such a happy experience."

After that, she said, "I studied at a Bible study group for Jews and Christians and agnostics and atheists. We read for eight years together. I continued on in a spiritual reading group for many years."

Then she made "Frontline's" 1996 election-year special, "The Choice," comparing the characters of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. "There was religion in that, among the powerful forces shaping those two men," she said.

In 1997, she and co-writer Jane Barnes received a Writers Guild Award nomination for "John Paul II: The Millennial Pope." "There was nothing easy about that film," Whitney said. "The challenge in that film was to avoid the simplicities and the hagiography of the right. He is a tower of contradictions, and I had to honor them."

After the attacks of Sept. 11, recalled Whitney, she immediately wanted to do a film.

Whitney had already been in contact with "Frontline" executives about "The Future of Faith," a six-hour series on faith. They advised her to come up with a plan for a 9/11 special.

"I spent a few weeks thinking about it very seriously, bringing a group of friends into my apartment, all of them smart, and we all stayed up talking about whether there was a film there," she said. "I was surprised by the unanimity of the language of history and sociology and politics, but there also was a metaphysical language. I was so startled to hear that. I began to think about it metaphysically."

In looking for people to interview, she said, "I cast my net very widely. I talked not only to people who had lost people and people who were in the towers, but firemen's widows, opera singers, CEOs, security guards. We pre-interviewed 850 people."

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