(Rebirth is now available on DVD through Oscilloscope Pictures. Visit the official Project Rebirth website for theatrical screening dates and to learn more, and go here to watch a startling video detailing the time-lapse project. NOTE: This review was first posted on September 8, 2011, as a “Hammer To Nail Pick of the Week” at the Filmmaker Magazine blog.)
On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, frankly, at the moment, I’m finding it hard not to feel more hopeless than hopeful about things. It’s bad enough that it’s still frighteningly easy to recall the visceral shock of that fateful morning, watching the twin towers crumble to the ground on television before rushing to my Washington Heights fire escape to confirm that they were, in fact, gone. But what is even more deflating to me is the realization that so many of the problems in our present world can be remotely-to-directly attributed to that monumental act of terror. Does time heal wounds? In this case, it appears to be opening new ones.
But what about on a personal level? What about the thousands of individuals who lost friends, family members, and/or loved ones on those planes and in those buildings? Has time managed to heal those gaping wounds? With Rebirth, filmmaker Jim Whitaker asks that question, and if the answer isn’t an emphatic yes, it also isn’t a crippling no. It’s left hovering somewhere in the somber, bittersweet middle, which makes for a more refreshingly honest 9/11 memorial, as well as a more gently heartbreaking one.
Just under a decade in the making, Rebirth is an ingeniously conceived, and expertly realized, production. How can one truly capture the passage of time on film? By capturing it. Which is exactly what Whitaker has done. Shortly after the tragedy of September 11th, he selected five subjects whose lives were directly impacted by the World Trade Center disaster: Tanya, a young woman who lost her fiancé; Nick, a teenager who lost his mother; Ling, an older woman who survived but suffered debilitating burns; Tim, a firefighter who lost countless friends; and Brian, a construction worker who lost his brother. From 2002 through 2009, Whitaker checked in with these individuals each year to document their healing and growth.
As if that plan weren’t ambitious enough, on March 11, 2002, the Project Rebirth team set up several 35mm film cameras in and around Ground Zero, and began the longest running time-lapse project in history. Whether or not this imagery, set to a swirling original Philip Glass score, stirs feelings of pride and resiliency in viewers—to my surprise, seeing Ground Zero from so many different angles actually stirred up long-simmering feelings of disbelief and anger from deep within me—the sheer audacity of the time-lapse achievement provides a welcome thrill.
It’s strange to see these survivors aging in front of our very eyes over the course of Rebirth’s 105 minutes, yet it also adds an undeniably exhilarating, life affirming, layer to the proceedings. But it’s their graceful, eloquent voices that leave the most indelible mark. These brave individuals have allowed the filmmakers—and, in turn, us—into their lives to witness their ongoing struggles: Nick becomes estranged from his own father, Ling’s mysteriously ravaged skin is worthy of a horror film, Tanya has clearly lost her soul mate, Brian’s work at Ground Zero has cursed him with PTSD, Tim has moved to DC to work since all of his friends are gone. Somehow, in the face of this massive sorrow, the smiles outnumber the tears. By the end of the film, a peaceful resignation has settled in for each subject. Considering the circumstances, this is as happy an ending as could be expected.
In addition to being a technical and conceptual marvel, Rebirth is a graceful testament to humanity’s ability to persevere in the face of unspeakable tragedy. It’s neither falsely uplifting nor unnecessarily deflating. By reflecting the noble spirit of these heroic everyday New Yorkers, it finds grace and eloquence in a tragedy that, one decade later, continues to haunt us all.
— Michael Tully