If ever there was a prime example of art bringing order out of chaos, it is Steven Rosenbaum's "7 Days in September." Drawing from the footage of 27 filmmakers, professionals and amateurs, Rosenbaum has told the story of 9/11 and the first week of its aftermath through their footage and their memories, which he recorded in interviews some time after the event. The result is a narrative at once personal, admirably coherent and, above all, heartening. Ironically, amid spiraling tragedy, the film shows individuals experiencing a sense of exhilaration as they hurl themselves into the recovery process, that feeling to be replaced with the chronic sense of unease and uncertainly that today grips the country.
If watching the twin towers of the World Trade Center explode and crumble yet another time is to risk being numbed by images of the worst attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor, this film counters that dread with a stirring record of how swiftly and selflessly New Yorkers came together. That residents and workers of Manhattan and beyond rose to the occasion magnificently is by now legend, yet to see this phenomenon emerge and spread out before us as it was occurring is awe-inspiring.
The instant the first and then second plane struck the towers, ordinary citizens as well as the police and fire departments and other official agencies began reaching out to each other in their horror and shock. In the immediate aftermath of the towers' disintegration, the smoke and debris are so thick that people on the streets struggle to get their bearings, while passengers emerge from subway stations not knowing what has happened, only to find that some kind of terrible disaster has struck.
As time swiftly passes, the shock of the destruction's magnitude sets in and gives way to concern for the victims and a sense of the probable enormity of the death toll. By Thursday, two days after the disaster, public spaces are filled with relatives carrying signs and photographs of missing loved ones, and walls are being covered with the same pleas and pictures. People are buying American flags as fast as possible in an expression of unity, and an amazing array of operations are underway to answer the need for blood donors and supplies and services of all kinds.
Meanwhile, the formidable task of rescue and recovery is going forward at ground zero. Although the area is sealed off, documentary filmmaker Gary Pollard, a major contributor to the film, found that unexpectedly, he could shoot freely in the off-limits of the deserted, hazy canyons of skyscrapers adjacent to the World Trade Center site. A firefighter from Baltimore, Jim Goetz is able to shoot the rubble of the towers up close, showing with unique force the enormity of the task ahead and how slim the chance of survival is amid the monumental wreckage.
As the week passes and Wall Street reopens as a key symbol of New York rousing itself back to normality, Rosenbaum counterpoints the broad outline of each step of the way with an array of telling details captured by himself and the other 26 videographers. Jennifer Spell, whose Brooklyn apartment had a wonderful view of the twin towers, shows us an intact document from the devastated firm of Cantor Fitzgerald that had floated to her doorstep. On a busy Manhattan street corner, pedestrians stop to notice a sparrow wandering around on the sidewalk, ascertain that it is not injured and conclude that it is as "dazed and confused as we are."
The finest moment in "7 Days in September" may well be when on Saturday a large group of people gather in Union Square in a grand exercise of freedom of expression as hawks and doves argue over what America's response should be to the attack. A young American man, exclaiming his willingness to die for his country, gets into a shouting match with a young European woman who insists that war is not the answer. Angry frustration spent at last and overcome with emotion, the young man spontaneously embraces the European and her friend.
What was really happening with the attack on the World Trade Center, one of the filmmakers observes, was that the fabric of New York was being tested and that it had held.
Unrated. Times guidelines: Suitable for all but the very young.
'7 Days in September'
A CameraPlanet presentation. Director Steven Rosenbaum plus 26 other participating filmmakers. Supervising producer Bruce Kennedy. Executive producers Steve Carlis, Steven Rosenbaum. Editor Marc Senter. Segment editing Mustafa Bhagat. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Exclusively at Loews Cineplex Beverly Center, La Cienega and Beverly boulevards, L.A. (310) 652-7760.