9/11 depictions: cathartic or exploitive?

A wave of movies and documentaries emerge that some say are insensitive

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In New York, "The Producers" is getting some competition as the most sought-after theater ticket.

Nightly, crowds are jamming into the foyer of an off-Broadway theater that, just 6 months ago, had been contemplating permanently closing its curtains because of poor returns. The Flea Theater's production, "The Guys," is hardly a merry evening's entertainment like Mel Brooks' blockbuster musical. It's a somber remembrance of eight firemen who died inside the Twin Towers on Sept. 11. Based on a fire chief's memories, the play was written by a professor of journalism who helped the firefighter pen eulogies for his men.

The show's brisk business can be attributed, in part, to the names on the theater's marquee - up until recently, Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver. But, for many New Yorkers, "The Guys" is an opportunity for cathartic reflection on last Fall's events.

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Storytelling - including dramatizations and documentaries - has long been part of how societies move on after significant events - like the Holocaust and the World Wars.

Now, just six months after 9/11, "The Guys" is one of a few projects, which include movies and documentaries in different stages of production, to tell jolting stories of the attack and its outcome. But there is little agreement on how the US should move forward after a shared national experience that has affected so many people in so many different ways.

While "The Guys" has been widely praised, a few critics feel that other media representations are arriving too soon. The process of grieving is still under way, they say, and these depictions of recent episodes will hamper the healing process - especially for the victims' friends and families. Worse, some feel that they're meant as ratings grabbers.

Advocates of the narratives argue that these accounts can be a way for society to face an emotionally complex series of events head-on. They are in favor of contemplating Sept. 11 in news and entertainment as long as it's done thoughtfully, especially since the country moved from the attack to the counterattack so quickly.

"When did you grieve?" friends from overseas asked Anne Nelson, who wrote the "The Guys." "We've pretty much extinguished our public grieving process," she says. "We think we're pretty good about moving on."

The depictions of recent incidents that Americans may soon see include:

• A documentary airing Sunday on CBS that will feature previously unseen footage taken at the World Trade Center.

• A reality TV series slated for ABC that will follow the military as it fights terrorism around the world.

• A movie reportedly underway by Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon called "All the Heroes Are Dead" that will tell the story of a security guard who died helping others escape the World Trade Center. It comes after reports in January that a number of made-for-TV movies are in also the works, including one from CBS about Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.

But it's the March 10 CBS documentary that is provoking the most debate. The story will be told through the lens of two French brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet, who were shooting a documentary about New York City firefighters on Sept. 11. The filmmakers survived the attacks, as did all of the men from the fire house they were shadowing.

The special is under the auspices of CBS News, and there "are not going to be pictures of people leaping off the building, and it's not going to be done to shock or upset anyone," says Gil Schwartz, CBS's spokesperson. CBS and the brothers are both making donations to a firefighters fund, which the public can donate to during the show.

But the decision to air the footage is upsetting some. At least one group, The Massachusetts 9/11 Fund, has written to CBS to ask them to edit out footage - inside and outside the Trade Center - at the moment when the airplanes hit. "Every reminder they have makes it harder for them to heal," says fund board member Daniel Bakinowski.

In a separate letter to CBS, Christie Coombs of Abington, Mass., who lost her husband on Flight 11, wrote, "the explosion of the plane as it slams into the building is as much murder and as graphic as murder by gunshot.... It may be captivating to some, but it is horrifying to others. I cannot express to you enough how painful it is to watch."

Some observers, like Joshua Miller, a professor at Smith College who studies how communities respond to disasters, are in favor of the program airing and suggest that the families could just choose not to watch. But Mr. Bakinowski argues that either way, "You're showing their family members dying."

Not all survivors have the same reaction to scenes from that day. Some firefighters who have seen footage of their fallen colleagues say they feel better after watching their heroic actions, says Mr. Miller. Professor Nelson says firefighters who come to her play often view it as a symbol that the outside world cares.

Journalists and academics recognize that these issues are painful to survivors, but also say that history and truth-telling require these stories to be told at some point. Most say they hope CBS offers a program that further informs and makes the events of Sept. 11 more understandable.

"I'm sorry if it touches a raw nerve with people who have suffered so much from this tragedy already," says Joe Angotti, a professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and a former executive and producer for NBC News. "But I don't think it's journalists' responsibility to avoid subjects because they're uncomfortable."

But also in the mix is a tendency to put patriotic fare on the airways, in some cases, suggests Angotti, to win ratings. The ABC reality series may end up in that category.

But for Nelson, her play was a counterbalance to other emotions that took over at the time of the attacks, when, she says, there were "lots of mass cultural expressions of vengeance and hyper-patriotism that didn't do justice to the story and the experience."

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