The Tribeca Film Festival, founded by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff back in 2002, opened last night with a showing of the film United 93. This would seem a natural course of events in the time since 9/11, for the film festival was started to revive a lower Manhattan that had been culturally devastated after the terrorist attacks. It should not be surprising that four years later there would be a film about that devastating day in September 2001, but there are those who question the merits of such a film. While approximately 100 relatives of those who died on board Flight 93 were in attendance, there are still many people who are just not ready to deal with a film about 9/11 much less go to see it.
I have not seen United 93 and intend to do so sometime after it opens on Friday, but the point is the controversy involving the debut of the film at the Tribeca Film Festival. I know some people are angry about a “fictional” film portrait of the happenings on board the flight that ended up crashing in a field in Pennsylvania. While it has been widely reported that director Paul Greengrass took great pains to make a film that honors the people on board that plane who fought back against the terrorists, for some it is too hard to even think about visualizing that which is still a horrific part of their lives.
As a New Yorker who lived through 9/11 and lost a family member and friends that day, I understand all too well the grief associated with that moment in time and space. Loss, and the grief associated with it, takes a toll and the process that can ease the pain is as individual and unique as each innocent person lost on 9/11. Having said that, each of us responds to tragedy in different ways. Some attend group meetings, others go to their houses of worship for consolation, and many people deal with their feelings within a supportive circle of family and friends.
My family and I dealt with 9/11 mostly within ourselves, supporting each other the best we could. After losing Steve, the heroic New York City Fire Department lieutenant with whom my sister lived for over nine years, she went to support groups and also became involved in various firefighter events. I tried to support her as best as I could, but I realized that much of what she was going through had to be handled the way she needed it to be.
About a year or so after the attacks, I began writing a story concerning Steve’s senseless death. I understood almost immediately that as a piece of nonfiction dealing with the loss of someone who was like a brother to me, it was just too hard to write. Eventually, I changed Steve’s name, my sister’s name, my name, and everyone else’s name in the story. I altered the particulars of the piece in order to “fictionalize” the reality of what happened that day, while staying true to the feelings and people involved. When the story was finished and I showed it to my sister, she read it and told me I was definitely on the right track.
I thought about making this story longer, wondering about expanding it into a novella or even a novel, but then as I was going through some files I found newspapers I had saved from the weeks after the attacks. There were so many stories about so many diverse people affected by 9/11, and that was when I decided to write a few more pieces and then a few more after that. All of these stories were fiction, but I hoped that within them there was something verifiable that happened to real people that day. When I finished I had fifteen stories, twelve of which would eventually comprise my book of short stories, The Savage Quiet September Sun.
As I was writing these fictional stories, I kept in mind something Picasso once said: “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” The more I thought about it, the more I understood that there was honesty available in art that could be difficult for us to discover elsewhere. Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal said as much at Monday’s news conference. “Whether they’re novelists, sculptors, or filmmakers, artists have been digesting the events of September 11. In terms of why now, it’s really why not now?” Thus, fictional reactions to this horrific and very real event are not only valid but necessary in order for us to process what happened and move on with our own lives.
I appreciated Ms. Rosenthal’s words because I remembered what I had gone through as I tried to get my book published. I kept hearing the same thing: “It’s too soon for 9/11 fiction.” Agents, editors, and publishers tried to “sanitize” or “dilute” my stories, chop them up, and make them more “palatable” before ultimately rejecting the book anyway. In each circumstance I resisted emphatically and took my book elsewhere.
Finally, I decided that the work meant too much to me to be truncated in any way. Also, since the book was dedicated to Steve, I wanted it to honor his memory, and the only way that could be done was without compromise. This is why I went with iUniverse as my publisher, and I can say that the finished product is just as I intended it to be; every word has been retained and it is my fictional look at the truth; of course, that is the truth as I envision it.
Starting off the Tribeca Film Festival with United 93 was the right thing to do and now is the right time to do it. As Mr. De Niro noted at the news conference, “It would have been strange to open it with anything but United 93.” There will be other films shown throughout the festival dealing with 9/11 including Saint of 9/11, Civic Duty, and Heart of Steel. As with any works of fiction or film, each will have to be evaluated on its own merit and, most definitely, on how it portrays the victims, survivors, and family members of victims.
It will be interesting to note the reaction to these films, but I am certain that most people understand that the only way to honor those lost on 9/11 is to never forget about them. When artists commemorate a visceral event in human history, whether it is written in words, carved in stone, painted on canvas, or depicted in a film, there is a lasting account that will provide a legacy for generations to come. I hoped to do that with my book, and I believe that is the ultimate intention for those involved with the Tribeca Film Festival.