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Rebuilding brick, mortar and soul after 9/11

Jim Whitaker wanted to make a documentary about the construction efforts at the World Trade Center site. But then he decided to include stories about people touched by the attacks. The gripping 'Rebirth' is the result.

August 25, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Director Jim Whitaker, right, directed the new documentary "Rebirth," which features Tim Brown, center, and Brian Lyons.
Director Jim Whitaker, right, directed the new documentary "Rebirth,"… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — — For years after he lost his younger brother Mike in the World Trade Center attacks, Brian Lyons would find himself in a strange position. He'd be standing in the backyard of his brother's home and would hear Mike's widow, Elaine, calling from inside.

" 'Mike, is that you?' she would say. 'Are you here?' Because I sound like him and I have the same gestures as him," Lyons explained. "For a while I'd try to talk lower or change my voice. But she'd still think it was him."

Lyons is sitting in a diner just blocks from ground zero, where nearly 10 years ago, his brother, a firefighter from an elite unit in the South Bronx, ran into a burning tower and never came out.

The aftermath was a nightmare for Lyons, his wife and their young daughters. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and, for several years, put on a heady cocktail of medication.

Many people in Lyons' situation might move away, or at least avoid ground zero. But Lyons is a construction worker, and he has spent nearly every day since the attacks there, first as part of the rescue and clean-up effort, then heading a team rebuilding the site.

"At the beginning, when we were down lower [in the site], some guys would just leave the job. They couldn't … take it," Lyons recalled, in his hard-bitten Queens accent that indulges the occasional profanity. "I guess I had chances to go too. But it never felt right to leave."

Lyons is one of five people featured in "Rebirth," a gripping documentary from first-time director Jim Whitaker about the effects of Sept. 11. The movie opens in theaters Friday in Los Angeles, ahead of an anniversary-day airing on Showtime.

Though most talking-head documentaries offer a snapshot of their subjects, who are asked to recall moments that happened long ago, Whitaker attempts something more ambitious and more patient: Each year, from 2002 to 2009, he would fly to New York and interview his subjects one-on-one about their lives, their memories and their feelings. As a result, "Rebirth" allows the viewer to live with the victims over a long period — privy to their raw, initial pain, their incremental progress, their inevitable setbacks and transformations.

As Lyons sits in the diner, an orange construction vest on his back and a blue hard hat in his hand, it's a crystalline late summer Tuesday, just as it was when the planes hit the towers. Across from him is another "Rebirth" subject, Tim Brown, a former firefighter who lost his best friend and dozens of other colleagues and confidantes in the attacks.

When Brown moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the newly created Department of Homeland Security shortly after Sept. 11, he recalls in the film, he was asked whether he missed his friends in New York. His response: Not really. "They're all dead."

Brown spent years, he says in the diner, "being lost, totally lost, just emotionally and as a person." A few years ago he decided to start talking to others affected by the attacks. "I dove back in with both feet. It's been exhausting but it's also healthy," he said. "I recently began talking with the wife of one of the pilots who was killed that day. And it's good, we get it. We get what it means to cry at the drop of a hat," he said, his eyes welling up.

The film began with an odd kernel of an idea. Whitaker, a veteran Hollywood producer who had spent years working with Ron Howard, had attended a wedding on the East Coast shortly after Sept. 11. There, he saw some Wall Street traders — macho, Master-of-the-Universe types — crying in the corner. He was moved but didn't think much of it. Shortly after, he was driving by ground zero and imagined that, one day, all the charred wreckage would be gone and something new would sprout up. He decided to make a movie that would capture the efforts to rebuild the site.

Founding a nonprofit called Project Rebirth, Whitaker befriended government officials and schmoozed real-estate moguls in the hope of gaining access to the site. Soon, a plan was born. He would mount 14 cameras on buildings in lower Manhattan from various vantage points, he explained this week as he stood on a roof of a building a few blocks northeast of the site and demonstrated how one of those cameras worked. Each camera would snap a still photograph every five minutes, every day. After a period of years, he would compress those images into a time-lapse video montage.

Not long after, he decided he wanted the film to be about people too. So he set about finding subjects touched by the attacks who'd be willing to sit with him for hours, sometimes even days, to talk about their lives.

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