Retouching the Void


Does time really heal all wounds? That hoary aphorism was in doubt long before 9-11, and it’s about to be put to the test again by a pair of docs from New York-based French filmmaker Etienne Sauret. The idea of revisiting September 11, on film or otherwise, isn’t a pleasant one, but Sauret’s initial offering, WTC: The First 24 Hours (which has aired on Cinemax and been excerpted on HBO and CBS), actually manages a fresh perspective. The director, camera in tow, had unimpeded access to the devastation for a full day before being shooed away by officials, and the footage he captured (sans commentary) is both gut-wrenchingly familiar and disconcertingly foreign. Devoid of the conventions of other filmed accounts—braying reporters, numbingly excessive replay, the avuncular Rudy Giuliani as tour guide—Sauret’s expedition uncovers the aptness in the “ground zero” sobriquet: With its structures reduced to meaningless ruin, the WTC’s poignant emptiness is horrifically unmasked.

Sauret’s follow-up, Collateral Damages, is less successful. Between interviews with NYC firefighters who responded to the disaster, the film includes scenes of disabled and/or contaminated 9-11 emergency vehicles being mercilessly scrapped at Fresh Kills. Sauret implies that his interviewees experienced a similar fate after their near-deification by a fickle press and public.

While this conclusion is open to debate, the film’s real flaw is its limited focus. As William Langewiesche made clear in his 2002 Atlantic Monthly series on ground zero, the 9-11 firefighters were willing participants in their elevation to mythical status, and their trials and tribulations—or at least the media’s exploitation of them—came to seem overbearingly redundant. It’s hard to say whether Sauret transcends the same brand of September 11 jingoism. His film takes the relentless boosterism to task by showing its human wreckage—most profoundly in the person of Al Sicignano, a plainly haunted fireman with Manhattan’s Engine 6 and the possessor of a chilling thousand-yard stare. But because of its narrowness, Collateral Damages often feels like just one more heavy-handed tribute to the NYFD.

Had Sauret widened his circle of inquiry to include the impressions of, say, office workers and service employees who were at the site, and even a few civvies who watched from a distance—a group the film implicitly scolds for taxing firefighters with post-traumatic neediness—the familiarity of Collateral Damages might have been mitigated. It may be a cliché to say so, but ground zero extends much further than the few blocks that were destroyed. Etienne Sauret has proven himself capable of exposing something new in the rubble, concrete and otherwise; why stop below Chambers Street?