The catastrophic events of September 11, 2001, four simultaneous attacks by Al Qaeda against the World Trade Center skyscrapers and other targets, have been documented or re-created cinematically many times, but never as in 9/11: Witnesses to the Tragedy, the National Geographic documentary series that aired since Monday, August 30 for four consecutive nights.
Produced by the British company 72 Films, specialized in archival documentaries, in collaboration with the 9/11 National Monument and Museum, it is an exhaustive and chronological immersion in that fateful day "through the eyes of those who witnessed it , suffered and survived ”, as the introduction explains. Producer TJ Martin (2012 Oscar winner for Unbeaten) develops the idea via video call: “The purpose was to explain 9/11 through the vision of those who were there. Especially in the US, each person has their own relationship with that day, and they almost always have their opinion on it from geopolitics. If you look at the day from within, your understanding of what happened changes a lot.
Kevin Leary came out of a cold room 15 minutes after impact and found hell
The series team, led by director Daniel Bogado (Death Sells), reviewed nearly a thousand hours of footage over two years. “In some cases,” says Bogado, “it was material that hadn't been seen before, that had been kept in a drawer for years. There were also many tapes that had only been seen 10 or 20 seconds on TV and we had the opportunity to review the complete tapes. We had to develop a whole system to organize all the material. Luckily TJ and Dan [Lindsay] they had already worked in a similar way for LA 92 [su película sobre los disturbios de Los Ángeles por el caso Rodney King, disponible en Disney+] and they helped with it. Sometimes the trees did not let us see the forest.
When I ask Bogado about his referenced documentaries, he quotes LA 92 again: "Like the series, it revolves around a great event, is based on archival material and relies on a cinematographic approach."
To the archive material (video, but also audio), carefully selected and mounted, are added original interviews with eyewitnesses. In the first and best episode, Initial Response, premiered in the official section of the Tribeca festival, the testimonies of fire chief Joseph Pfeifer, who had started the day checking for a possible gas leak, ended up observing and investigating the first explosion, or survivors such as executive Ron Clifford and chef Kevin Leary, who emerged from a cold room fifteen minutes after the impact of the first plane and found before him a Dantesque landscape of destruction and mutilated bodies. 9/11 itself: Witnesses to the tragedy is a difficult drink to assimilate. Its makers know how to play with perspectives and montage cuts to create an immersive experience around one of the saddest days in human history.
"As a documentary filmmaker, I do not intend in any way to sanitize what happened," explains Bogado
You cannot get out unscathed from this succession of images of destruction, people asking for help in vain and bodies falling into the void; of calls of fear, anxiety and, above all, love. What to show and what not was, it seems, a constant question during production. «As documentary filmmakers, we did not want in any case to sanitize what happened. We have a responsibility to convey the magnitude of the horror, ”explains Bogado. "But we do talk all the time about finding a balance." In the end they found their way through the hands of the witnesses themselves. "This series is ultimately about people who stepped up and wanted to share their story with us," says Martin. “We wanted to do justice to the story of those who wanted to speak. They were the guide and our job was to follow them in the most respectful way possible.
All that said and despite ending up in the middle of chaos, the series is not only a display of atrocities: it also includes cathartic rescues or displays of the kindness of strangers. It is a tribute to the firefighters, police officers and other groups that responded at first to the unimaginable tragedy, as well as to ordinary citizens capable of showing empathy in the middle of something similar to the end of time.
The effects and aftermath of 9/11 will be best covered in Decisive Moments. 9/11 and the War on Terror, Brian Knappenberger's series that hit Netflix on Wednesday. In addition, HBO has just released (not yet in Spain) the Spike Lee NYC documentary series epicenters 9 / 11-2021½.