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  • Adam Tye

9/11: The Naudet Brothers Documentary


I was five when 9/11 happened, but my first memory of it wasn't until years later. Even then the experience was oblique. News stories were talking about the an anniversary of a tragic event that my teachers and parents scurried around with tact. All I knew was that a lot of people had died, and that it involved a plane crash and some towers.


Over the years, I learned what 9/11 was via osmosis, but it wasn't until the end of my GCSE years that the enormity of it hit me. I was in English class and we were working on the poetry module: specifically a poem called 'Out of the Blue' by Simon Armitage. Partway through, my teacher revealed it was about 9/11, and turned on Rufus Sewell's dramatic reading set to video footage of the disaster. It was my first time watching the footage, and I remember an overwhelming feeling of the uncanny. What I was watching was horrific, but to the point of unreality. It looked like a movie. Trying to reconcile that feeling with the knowledge that it absolutely was real is something that sits with me to this day. This is some of the most overwhelming loss of human life captured on film, and yet it is largely bloodless. Maybe that's why the footage can be shown over and over again on TV, but as soon as they publish a photo of someone actually dying, like in The Falling Man, that's when things have gone too far.


Recently it occurred to me that 2021 marks 20 years since that horrible day, and I was overcome with an incomprehensible urge to understand it better. I don't know where this urge comes from - all I can do is guess. I was alive for this event, it shapes our lives to this very day, and yet I remember nothing. The fact that we have all this footage, all this raw documentation, seems more and more like an invitation to reach out and empathise with a day that all of us hope never comes to pass again. There are a million stories happening in those 2 hours, and every time I come across something new, it never becomes desensitising.


This documentary is likely one of the most famous (if not *the* most famous) made about 9/11. Shot on the ground by Jules and Gédéon Naudet, it was originally set up to be a work-in-progress film about the journey of a rookie fireman, Antonios, as he joins a firehouse and works his way up the ranks. Generously, the opening ten minutes or so present that narrative to us on its own terms. We see Antonios train, graduate, and begin his initiation into the FDNY, almost in tribute to the documentary that was never meant to be.


Instead, whilst practicing filming on a routine day job to fix a gas leak, Jules Naudet captured the only clear footage of American Airlines Flight 11 striking the North Tower of the World Trade Center, before following the fire team as they journeyed into the lobby of the building and attempted to mount a rescue operation of the people above them.


I can imagine that this documentary is far more widely known in the US than it is in the UK, as I have never come across it until now, despite the unique perspective that it offers. I had long assumed that our footage of 9/11 - extensive though it may be - was limited to news footage and outsider POVs, and never considered that someone, somehow, had filmed an experience from inside the building itself. Much like the images you've seen a hundred times before, it remains bloodless (largely out of respect for the victims), but that does not make it an easy watch. What the Naudet brothers capture here is something that has been lost to time - a sense of immediacy and unpredictability. Over the years, the events of 9/11 became etched in stone, but here you're struck with the sensation that things are in motion and anything is possible, whether that's the fear that things are going to get even worse (at one point a rumour flies that a third plane has struck the tower) or the doomed hope that the rescue mission will go as planned. It's a feeling that you can't help but contrast with your own knowledge of how events will proceed, giving the film a kind of ominous, haunted feeling, as though everything you're looking at is poisoned by its future demise. Looking at the grand lobby of the North Tower (an image I don't think I had come across until this year), it's strange to think that in just under 2 hours, it's not going to exist anymore.


If you find yourself in the right place to take it in, I don't think I can recommend any documentary more for the 20th anniversary than this one. It isn't easy, but it is fascinating and highlights a human element of a disaster that is all too tempting to reduce to numbers and rubble. I'd urge you to find a good copy, though, rather than the YouTube upload I watched. In what can only be described as a bitter full-stop to the experience, I later discovered that the uploader was a 'no-planer'; aka someone who doesn't believe that planes were a part of the day's events which...I just cannot conceive of how you can upload this kind of footage to YouTube and then slyly cast doubt on it in that way. I'm reticent to end my own account of it with this information, but I can't leave it out - the level of disconnect from reality and disrespect for the victims was too astonishing for me not to mention.


So don't let that taint what is a singularly important piece of filmmaking. I don't really know how else to end this entry other than expressing condolences for the victims and their families, as well as extraordinary respect for the first responders who marched into that building to save lives, along with Jules Naudet who ran in to record history, even as hell erupted around them.


Other notes:

  • If anyone is looking to mark today's occasion, but has maybe already seen this documentary or perhaps doesn't want something quite as full-on, I can wholeheartedly recommend listening to Brian Clark's survivor story of his escape from the South Tower. Clark was one of a handful of people that managed to escape from above the second plane's point of impact, and he's been doing the rounds sharing his tale ever since. It's not a short watch, clocking in at about 45 minutes, but it is absolutely riveting. Clark is an exceptional storyteller, and communicates the experience with incredible clarity, painting a picture of the layout of the WTC plaza without bogging you down in details. At the centrepiece of his testimony is his rescue of Stanley Praimnath from the rubble of the floors below him, and their ensuing journey down the tower to safety. The two have appeared together in interviews since. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that the video is a particularly happy watch, but it is a way to remember 9/11 that places emphasis on the feats of human compassion, rather than the overwhelming sense of evil. Plus, Clark isn't without a gentle, earned sense of humour, which not only makes the watch all the easier, but also allows him to recount some of the more absurd parts of the experience in a way that makes his tale especially vivid.

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