An intimate group portrait on an epic scale, Rebirth tracks the long tails of grief and recovery through the ongoing stories of five people directly impacted by the events of September 11, 2001. Starting soon after that infamous day and continuing into 2009, director Jim Whitaker conducted regular interviews with his subjects (ten in all, but only half made the theatrical cut), monitoring their progressions through stations of rage, disbelief, and resilience. Shot in tight close-up against a black background, these candid monologues prove to be both unbearably moving and utterly approachable; our extended time with the survivors, along with Whitaker’s reluctance to dice their testimony into exploitative sound-bytes, closes the gap of relatable experience.
Time-lapse cityscape sequences have become ubiquitous in film and TV—they’re our era’s go-to temporal transition shots—so Whitaker’s impressive, multi-camera footage of Ground Zero’s transformation from open wound to work site registers as little more than a fancy palette cleanser. No matter, because the transformations that really matter happen on the faces of Tanya, who lost the love of her life on 9/11 and struggles to let go “without letting go”; Brian, a construction worker who can only cope with the loss of his brother by continuing to work at the site; Tim, a firefighter wracked by survivor’s guilt; Ling, a city worker who emerged from the 78th floor of the WTC with debilitating 2nd and 3rd degree burns; and Nick, whose young life has been defined by the loss of his mother. Despite Whitaker’s best attempts, Rebirth never persuasively builds to catharsis, and that’s entirely for the best. Forget transcendence: The quintet’s return to normal, quotidian lives is the most inspiring development of all.