Tuesday , September 29 2020
"I made this film for those who had been poisoned by the toxic dust."

Interview With Penny Little, Director of 911: Dust and Deceit at the World Trade Center

With 911: Dust and Deceit at the World Trade Center, Penny Little has made a moving, engrossing indictment of how the federal government failed New York City residents, and the rescue workers and volunteers near the Twin Towers, in the days following 9/11 and continue to do so today.

The documentary focuses on the dust from the twin towers. As if it was not enough that terrorists destroyed those famous buildings, the Environmental Protection Agency itself fell down on the job, repeatedly asserting that inhalation of the dust would not hurt anyone.

Through interviews, Little proves that information to be wrong as person after person speaks on camera of health problems following exposure to contaminants that can’t be explained in any other way — a singer who can no longer sing, a janitor who can no longer climb as many stairs, to name the two most memorable to me.

I put some tough questions to Little in order to pre-empt the questions of skeptics. This is the first of a two-part interview.

How did this project come about?

I was in New York finishing up another film, Electile Dysfunction, in December 2004, a movie about voting and election fraud. I began speaking with some people who were affected by the dust. I had seen a preview cut of another film on the subject of the dust called Strategic Omissions, so I was already aware of the issue. I became more and more interested in the story as I learned more — because it was obvious that people were getting sick from the dust and not getting help or even recognition for what was really wrong with them. I asked James Walter Jr., who was the executive producer for Electile Dysfunction, for some startup money to film in NYC. He funded my first two trips to NYC.

What did you intend to do with this project?

I made this film for those who had been poisoned by the toxic dust, those who were sick and dying. I wanted this to be a way for their story and some of the background to be told. I would like for this story to get wider distribution because it shows the callousness of what I believe to be a bunch of rogue criminals in our administration. This gives government a bad name. 

I also believe that this film does not put Mayor Giuliani in a particularly good light, and rightly so. He was not the “hero” of 9/11 as portrayed in his public image. I wanted this film to have mainstream appeal; this is not a partisan issue. The website hopefully will become more of a hub for people seeking answers. Until these people get all the help they need, I want to keep the momentum for this issue going.

Do you feel you succeeded?

Yes, from the responses at showings, people are getting the information; not just facts, but with the emotional content of some of the victims. I’ve been on quite a few radio shows, and am pleased by the results.

My movie focuses solely on the problems caused by the misrepresentations of various individuals within agencies in New York City, New York state, and Washington D.C., who covered up the fact that the dust was toxic. There was little consideration for the collateral damage caused by the ongoing chemical attack on the people of New York in the form of this toxic dust. The citizens of New York were lied to and now thousands are sick and a number have died as a direct result.  

I have noticed since the release of my film a lot more information coming out in the mainstream press. Coincidence or timeliness? There are activist groups that wish to take up my film in a big way – one wants to get a copy into the hand of every voter. However, that would require funding.

Is there anything you regret about the finished product?

I would have liked to have gotten interviews from the doctors at Mt Sinai Hospital. I tried on three different occasions. I tried to get an interview with Christine Whitman, but never got a response.  I also would have liked to have spoken with Juan Gonzales, whose stories published in the NY Daily News met with the disapproval of Giuliani’s office, and other officials who were “worried that the report would frighten the public, delay recovery efforts, and endanger property values in the financial district” (from Fallout, p. 18). Gonzales then wrote the excellent book Fallout,  about how ”George Bush, the EPA, Rudy Giuliani risked the health of thousands by opening up downtown too soon” (from the cover of the book).

Where did you get all the video footage?

I filmed the interviews and Lenny Charles filmed on 9/11.

Where did you find the people to interview?

One person lead to another. Jenna Orkin was particularly helpful, as was Joel Kupferman in finding people to interview. I was asked to tour Europe on a 9/11 tour to speak and show a preview cut of the film. I hoped to get more interviews on that tour, especially with William Rodriguez, a janitor in the World Trade Center, who helped rescue dozens of people. He was the last person pulled out alive from the rubble of the North Tower, and has health effects which are directly the result of his exposure on 9/11.

Then I got an email forwarded to me from Rachel Hughes, who volunteered at Ground Zero. Rachel had been asking for help via online 9/11 groups. I called her immediately, and arranged for her to come to Europe, if her doctors would allow. There were two separate tours actually – one which was dealing with the environmental issues, and one which questioned the government’s official story about 9/11. Rachel and I became friends. I stayed with Rachel in New York on several occasions in 2005-2006 to finish the film, and got a few more interviews.

I really wanted to speak to members of Congress who are involved in the issue, like Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and Rep. Jerold Nadler. I persisted, and someone who was friends with Nadler helped get that interview – Nadler had been on my list of potential interviews for Electile Dysfunction, and was one of the reasons I originally went to NYC.

I wasn’t able to get an interview with Hillary Clinton, who has also been an advocate for those who are sick.

How long did you work on this project?

January 1, 2005 through January 11, 2007. The deadline was for world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

(More information about the film, and ordering information, is available at a site set up for that purpose. The site also has a trailer for the film.)

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

Check Also

Mojo Nixon

Virtual SXSW: Film Review – ‘The Mojo Manifesto’: Punk Country Crooning

Mojo Nixon combined punk rock and country to craft a unique style sometimes described as cowpunk or psychobilly.