Who Were You On 9/11?

On 9/11, virtually everyone I've spoken with was struck by that most human of instincts. Fight or Flight. Or there is one other -- Freeze. Almost no matter where you were, people froze. A combination of confusion, fear and lack of clarity.

I froze.

For a moment. Maybe two. As the television in my conference room showed -- live -- the image of the second plane ruthlessly, purposefully, plowing through the South Tower. But then I turned to fight. On 9/11 "fight" meant act. Firemen, police officers, and ambulance drivers, all moved to action. A kind of selfless bravery that defies explanation. I'm forever humbled by their unflinching efforts to save people in those pierced and terminally wounded towers.

I wasn't a first responder.

I'm a filmmaker. A documentary filmmaker. And for me -- almost without a moment's hesitation -- I knew what I had to do. Honestly, as I think back, I really did think the world was ending. I thought that World War III had just exploded 39 blocks south of roof deck where I stood watching the smoke rise from the buildings.

I knew I was staying. I knew I was going to fight with the tools of my trade. A video camera, a microphone and if we were still around tomorrow -- a computer armed with Final Cut Pro.

What I didn't know was that my fellow peers and filmmakers would fight as well.

Dave Goldberg, Bruce Kennedy, Rasheed J Daniel, Teri Klein, Mike Petro, Michael Rey, Mike Ricca, Eric Croft, Lori Fechter, Ronnie Hernandez, Mark Stencik, Amber Tozer, and Jack Youngelson. They did that thing that can't be explained. They acted -- they went from the relative safety of 28th Street -- downtown to the world ending, smoke-filled, terrifying blocks around the World Trade Center.

The thing about documentary film is that -- unlike the work of historians, who to some extent, have the benefit of some objectivity and distance -- we need to record what we see as it happens. If it's not recorded in images and sounds, it's lost to documentarians who want to explore and illuminate with the benefit of hindsight.

And so, when the city had survived -- and we'd gone from gathering to organizing, we had a series of very hard decisions to make. We'd reached out and found a collection of remarkable people who'd acted on the same instincts we had. They'd stood their ground. They'd recorded what they saw. They'd done their job. And each of them had seen things that otherwise would have gone unseen, and unremembered by future generations.

An extraordinary collection of filmmakers, citizen journalism, and video camera-armed observers did their job. Justin Adler, Bruce Cotler, Mike Cunga, Brian Gately, Jim Goetz, Sumner Glimcher, Dmitry Kibrik, Harry Lapham, Robert Lieblein, Kyle McCabe King Molapo, Seamus Mills, Roy Nelson, Gary Pollard, Alan Roth, Rob Santana, Jennifer Spell, Jenny Tolan, Brian Tunney, Scott VanderVoort and Sherwin Winick were all storytellers to history.

So in the edit room the debate was passionate. The rough cut of the film was long. Very long. Almost three hours. What should we cut out? The film was called 7 Days in September. The week after the attacks. People were numb. The images of the towers being hit, burning and falling were seared in our minds.

"Let's start the film on 9/12" one of the producers suggested,"No one needs to see the day of images again."

But I strongly disagreed. "This isn't a film for us, or our peers, or even their children," I remember arguing. "It's a film for our children's children, and for them -- the film has to start when the story starts -- with the planes. Like it or not, we begin on that crystal blue sky and perfect fall day."

We looked for more cuts. "What about the Union Square fight," another producer suggested. Filmmaker Rasheed J Daniel had waded into a near riot that had teetered on the edge of coming unglued. He'd gotten closer as participants had argued, accused, and gotten in each others face demanding retribution. The city could have burnt to the ground at that moment, but instead -- two of the most passionate participants ended up crying in each other's arms. The scene stayed.

The lost bird on the sidewalk -- stayed.

The volunteers handing out food to the firemen -- stayed.

The woman who returned to her smoke-damaged apartment and cursed the terrorists for what they'd done to her -- stayed.

Weeks later, and hundreds of careful, cuts and trims later -- the film was finished.

Seven Days In September is a resoundingly positive film about New York, my neighbors and friends, and the melting-pot island that mixes languages, nationalities, religions, and political beliefs with such magnificent style and grace that even tearing a hole in the heart of the city can't bring it down.