Project Rebirth: An Interview With Jim Whitaker

'Rebirth,' a documentary that follows the transformation of five people whose lives were forever altered on September 11, 2001, premiered to a standing ovation at Sundance on January 23. The film chronicles their journey while simultaneously capturing- via multi-camera time-lapse photography - the rebuilding of Ground Zero. Using nearly 1,000 hours of raw footage, American producer and filmmaker Jim Whitaker has crafted a monumental piece of living history. 10 years in the making, it is a chronicle of grief and coping, an ode the supremacy of hope, and a genuine endowment to both the world of cinema and the historical record. I spoke with Whitaker after the film was shown.

TS: How would you describe Project Rebirth?
JIM WHITAKER: I would describe it as a film that spans 10 years and investigates the evolution of the physical and emotional healing of ground zero. Both through the site and through five people whose lives we follow over that period of time.

How did you decide to tell the story in the way that you did?
It occurred in stages. I went to Ground Zero a month after September 11 with my wife. I went there with the intention of one day, when we had children, to be able to tell them what it was like to see Ground Zero and for them to know it first hand from me and Chris. And what I discovered was in sort of facing the rubble and facing the kind of sentiment of dread and anxiety and everything that came with it, I had a moment within about a period of twenty minutes where I realized the place was going to one day look different, and it gave me a small sense of hope. And that made me ask the question 'How can I allow an audience to go from this sense of dread to hope in a short period of time?' And so I decided the best way to do it was to literally show it - to put up cameras that would track, on a five-minute by five-minute frame basis, the evolution of the site.

It was a month later, after I'd spent a great deal of time down there and I was experiencing the human and emotional toll that I began to realize that the second part of the project needed to happen, which was for me to find ten people who had been affected by the day and begin to interview them every year in an almost human time-lapse fashion. So the film ended up becoming a combination of the physical and emotional healing of the site - bringing those two ideas together.

Do all ten people appear in the film?
I ended up focusing the film on five people who in particular had experienced the most direct loss as a result of the event. The film in many respects is about grief and healing, and ultimately it's about the resilience of the human spirit. How people get over and move through their grief. So I decided to choose five subjects who had experienced that loss, to include their journeys, to really explore the challenge of going through grief and coming out the other end.

Project Rebirth encompasses not only the documentary 'Rebirth' but the non-profit organization as well. Were they conceived of separately or in tandem?
Again, the whole project has been this surprising evolution. It started with the time-lapse installation, it evolved into a larger film, and at a certain point I was showing the film in a reduced form to people and I started to see that it was affecting them in a way. I began to realize that we could be helping people, because it was kind of cathartic for them. At that point in time I was asked by the President of Georgetown University, where I went to school, Jack DeGioia, to go to Georgetown and present the film. In doing that what I discovered was that there was a host of people who could actually use the raw interviews, and in a contained academic environment be able to study the interviews and learn from them. So I realized actually the power in what we had was the ability to learn from grief and then be able to transfer that knowledge into teaching and learning tools for students, beginning that process. And that's the beginning of the Project Rebirth Center, which evolved out of the film. The entire project is a non-profit entity, all proceeds will go to the building of a Project Rebirth Center.

What were your interviewing techniques when dealing with such a delicate, raw subject matter?

The first thing I said to the subjects was that I was not interviewing them in a way that say Peter Jennings would, to get a quote or a sound-bite. I said 'I'm just here to have a conversation with you, and mostly I'm here to listen.' So the technique of the interviews was really one of being very open and responding to what they were feeling and what was coming from them. Ultimately the film, which has no narration, is really my attempt to put a mirror up to them and allow them to open up to what they're going through, and by doing that allow people to see themselves in these subjects. So a lot of the technique had to do with really listening and then asking questions out of curiosity about where they were at that specific time. It was about just being curious and then following that path.

Can you talk about working with Phillip Glass. It seems the score works in concert with the film to create a sort of narration?
I've always loved his music, and I've always admired the films he did like Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. Yet, I also recognized that there was a certain emotionality in the nature of the topic that I also wanted to make sure was part of the feeling of the score running through it. He in fact was the very first person I showed the film to, the cut of the film to. I flew to New York and showed it to him and he immediately loved it and signed on to do it. And then we began to work, and when I sat down with him for the first time he said, 'I've already been writing' and we began to work very quickly because the film has an interwoven quality of the site mirroring the evolution of the people.

So what the score does beautifully I think, is pulls together the path that the subjects are going through - which in some respects, as I discovered making the film, mirrors the evolution of the site over time. It brings together, it holds together those elements. He understood the energy that the film needed to have in terms of touching on its humanity and at the same recognized that there's a building process that happens in a healing process. It was one of the highlights of my career to have worked with him, and he was amazing.

You just left the premiere, how was the film received?
We got two standing ovations, which was very moving I have to say. For having worked on the film for nearly a decade and editing it for the better part of a year and a half, to have this moment in a place as remarkable as Sundance, a festival as remarkable as that, to get that response was quite emotional and very powerful.

What was the hardest part of this process for you? What was the most rewarding?
I think, in truth, when I did the interviews I did them mostly around September 11th. Largely always around September 11th, so it was usually an intensive week, around the anniversary. Those weeks got easier over time as the subjects changed, because their healing became part of the healing that everyone was going through. But often there were times at the end of those weeks where that could be hard. It's quite an emotional process to go through. Ultimately all of it has been rewarding. In retrospect it's kind of a strange thing to think, 'Oh that thing that you just worked on took a decade.' And yet, the journey of going through it and everything I learned in the process of it, everything I learned in the process of it was really very gratifying. To have the experience of being [at Sundance] at this time, it's a great place to come to after all that work. The other thing I would say, the other incredibly rewarding thing is just that there were so many people that were involved in the film over that period of time. Perhaps the most emotional thing is actually the credits because you see how many people were involved to make it happen over that period of time. It was a lot of people, so I'm very grateful to them.

What's next for Project Rebirth?

Well we'll see how the positive reaction moves towards a desire, a possibility of getting distribution for the film, theatrically and a television venue. It was a very positive response, everything seems very positive, but we'll just take it as it comes. One thing that I can say is that we have a relationship with the National September 11th Memorial & Museum and ultimately the film will end up there. It will also be shown in different iterations than what the film is. We'll have a destination for the film there as well. That's a really good thing, we have a partnership with them.

Do you plan to keep the cameras rolling on Ground Zero?

Absolutely, the cameras will run until there's a ceremony at Ground Zero where someone cuts a ribbon and says, 'OK, we're done.' They're running as we speak.