Sunday, March 10, 2002

Television


9-11 film focuses on the heroes

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        Although 2,838 people died in the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, tonight's 9/11 CBS documentary isn't about death.

        It's about heroes.

        That's the description from filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, the French brothers who were filming a documentary that day about rookie firefighters in lower Manhattan.

        Jules, 28, accompanied firefighters into Tower 1 minutes after the crash of American Airlines Flight 11, and filmed rescue efforts for 45 minutes inside the building.

        “It's a positive story. It's not about death. It's a tribute (to the firefighters),” says Gedeon, 31.

        CBS' commercial-free 9/11 wasn't available for preview, but the brothers described their film to TV critics in a conference call last week. I'll take their word for it — considering that they turned down millions for their extraordinary images because they “didn't want anyone to exploit this footage,” Gedeon says.
       

They heard a plane

        Jules was 10 blocks away, with firefighters at a gas leak, when they heard a low-flying airplane. Jules filmed it striking the building, which will air in an uninterrupted 54-minute segment.

ON THE AIR
    What: 9/11
    When: 9 p.m. today
    Where: Channels 12, 7
KOPPEL AT GROUND ZERO
    What happened to everything removed from the World Trade Center site since Sept. 11?
    ABC repeats a Nightline broadcast Monday (11:35 p.m., Channel 9) with Ted Koppel's visit to the Staten Island Fresh Kills landfill. He interviews workers sorting photos, identification badges, jewelry and other items found in the 600 tons of debris from Ground Zero. Their goal is to identify each item, and return it to a family member.
    The show opens with Mr. Koppel at Ground Zero interviewing four retired firefighters — all of whom lost sons in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He also speaks to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
    Monday's 45-minute special, which aired Feb. 1, will be updated to include scenes from Monday's memorial at the World Trade Center site marking the six-month anniversary of the attacks.
        “We heard the roar, saw the plane above, and it was coming out from behind a building and it went into the tower,” Jules says.

        9/11 will include both brothers' footage of the smoky hell from the second tower disintegration — the thick black cloud that obliterated lower Manhattan, followed by the mass of gray ash that looked like devastation from a nuclear bomb.

        Although CBS officials stress that “there are no gruesome or graphic pictures,” 9/11 will include the sounds of bodies landing on the World Trade Center's glass-and-metal canopy after people jumped from the flaming tower.

        “You hear the jumpers, and the sound is very tough. And people talk about (the jumpers),” says CBS News producer Susan Zirinsky, 9/11 co-executive producer.

        Viewers will hear only a fraction of the disturbing thuds, she says. “That sound every 20 or 30 seconds would be tough on the audience.”
       

It's not sanitized

        But viewers will hear the raw, profane talk of rescuers on CBS.

        “The language is rough, but so is the crisis. To totally sanitize what came out of their mouths ... would take away from the living historical document I believe this is. To sanitize it would be a mistake,” Ms. Zirinsky says.

        Viewers also won't see people on fire running from the World Trade Center. Nearly 20,000 gallons of jet fuel, which had dropped down the elevator shafts, exploded into a huge fireball in the lobby, Jules says.

        “When we arrived, the scene was quite surprising. All the windows in the lobby had been blown out and people were on fire,” Jules says.

        He had to make an instantaneous decision: To film or not film the fire victims? He turned his camera away.

        “It was the first time I had ever seen anything like this. It was quite horrible, and I decided this was something people would not like to see,” he says.

        He focused on the rescuers. That had been the brothers' intention when planning their original documentary for two years. In July, they had started filming a probationary firefighter — a “proby” — joining Engine 7, Ladder 1.

        “The story line was how a young kid becomes a man,” Gedeon says. “It is a story about a firehouse, and the guys in the firehouse going through daily life — and after what happened on Sept. 11, surviving it.”

        Jules filmed firefighters finding the body of fire chaplain Mychal Judge. He chronicled the confusion when rubble fell near Tower 1. Nobody had realized that Tower 2 had completely crumbled like a giant sand castle.

        “We thought it was a partial collapse of our tower ... one floor on another,” Jules says. When he ran outside, he figured that Tower 2 was still standing, hidden by Tower 1.

        Jules filmed while literally running for his life with Fire Battalion Chief Joseph Pfieffer. When they crawled behind a parked car, the chief got on top of Jules, who was wearing only a T-shirt. “He wanted to make sure I was safe,” he says.

        Gedeon, knowing his brother was at the scene, tried to make his way from the firehouse to the twin towers. He was filming people running from the building when United Flight 175 struck Tower 2.

        “I ended up taking, almost by accident, the second plane hitting the World Trade Center,” he says.

        It was 4 1/2 hours before the brothers saw each other again at the firehouse. “Jules came back, and I just couldn't believe that he was alive,” Gedeon says.
       

"The right time'

        The brothers continued to document firefighters' work, with the same sensitivity, at the site now known as Ground Zero.

        “When we went filming and digging with firemen, day after day and night after night, we refused to put a camera on what we would find,” Gedeon says.

        Their film will be broadcast nationally one day short of the six-month anniversary. Some victims' families have said it's too soon to air the footage. CBS executives disagree.

        “This is the right time. We can't forget what drove this country to war ... It's really important not to forget what happened,” says Ms. Zirinsky, 48 Hours executive producer. “We felt it was history that needs to be told.”

        New York Firefighter James Hanlon, an executive producer and narrator on the film, says families of firefighters who perished on Sept. 11 want CBS to air the film.

        “They told me, "Make sure this is seen. Make sure you put it (on)',” he said in a conference call with TV critics last week. The film shows firefighters as heroes and consummate professionals, he says.

        “They raised up on the darkest day, and did their job, and did it well,” Mr. Hanlon says.
       

DeNiro will be host

        Actor Robert DeNiro, a lower Manhattan resident, will host 9/11. No commercials will air during the program, and stations are prohibited from airing promotions, Ms. Zirinsky says. Nextel Communications, the sole sponsor, will air public service announcements for the Uniformed Firefighters Association Scholarship Fund. The Naudets say they will donate their proceeds to the UFA, after they recoup their expenses on the two-year project.

        The brothers praise CBS for letting them make the documentary as they had originally envisioned, and helping them assemble it from 180 hours of film. “This has been such a blessing to do with (CBS),” Gedeon says.

        “From the very beginning, we were confronted by the choice: What do we do with this footage?” Jules says.

        They refused “millions and millions for the footage” because they didn't want anyone “to exploit it, and repeat it over and over,” Jules says.

        “It was really not what this was about,” Jules says. “We wanted to do a tribute.”
       

        Contact John Kiesewetter by phone: 768-8519; e-mail: jkiesewetter@enquirer.com.
       

       



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