A national commemoration like no other

Programming for anniversary of Sept. 11 reaches historic proportions


September 01, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Forget the new fall television season, our usual preoccupation this time of year along with football and going back to school. This week, we will witness the beginning of the largest collection of commemorative special-event programming in the history of television, as the medium starts remembering the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Everyone will be weighing in, and the range of programming is mind-boggling. It runs from classic-style documentaries celebrating rescue workers, like ABC's Report from Ground Zero, to WorldLink TV promising its 18 million satellite subscribers a special edition of its signature news program, Mosaic, showing how Sept. 11 is being remembered in places like Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

There are more than two dozen specials on public television alone. They range from the kids on Zoom planting "sunflowers for peace" and sharing their feelings about Sept. 11 to Frontline's darkly existential "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero," about the struggle for many to reconcile a notion of a God with what happened a year ago at the World Trade Center.

On cable, CNN takes us back to last year through the eyes of its newsroom staffers as they scrambled to cover the story and process the horror. Disney, meanwhile, takes us to Woodland Valley and a week of special episodes of Bear in the Big Blue House that serves as a "parable about Sept. 11," in the words of its creators at Jim Henson Television.

While Showtime has 10 films airing under its Reflections from Ground Zero banner in the next 10 days, Sundance, has nine as part of its 9 Views: 9 / 11 series. The four Discovery networks -- Discovery, Travel, Health and the Learning Channel -- will air 14 specials related to Sept. 11 in the next 10 days.

There are simply too many films and specials to get a precise count. But, while the particulars and even the politics span a wide range of difference, all are doing essentially the same kind of work: This is television as the great American culture machine, revisiting and reinterpreting a traumatic event from our shared past. Memories -- national, shared and collective -- are made of this.

The most dominant pattern among the 39 programs screened for this report involves the questioning of American identity, with virtually all the productions asking in one way or another what it means to be an American in the wake of Sept. 11.

This process was already well under way at the six-month anniversary when CBS premiered its acclaimed 9 / 11 documentary, based on photography by French filmmakers Gedeon and Jules Naudet done with a crew of firefighters at Ground Zero on the day of the terrorist attacks. The Discovery Channel marked six months with its documentary, New York Firefighters: The Brotherhood of September 11th. On Memorial Day, HBO offered In Memoriam: New York City 9 / 11.

All three were outstanding films, remarkably similar in their themes of solidarity, suffering, sacrifice and heroism. They focused on rescue workers, depicting firefighters and police at Ground Zero in terms of cowboys on the frontier, right down to In Memoriam filling the soundtrack with the most muscular of Aaron Copland cowboy compositions.

The films were a collective statement of reassurance that we were still made of the right stuff -- that heroes still walk this land. A corollary message of these programs: Yes, we have suffered great losses, but we will not be broken by these attacks if we work together.

Who are Americans?

There is still much of that in these one-year anniversary programs. None sounds that theme more clearly and powerfully than ABC's Report from Ground Zero, based on the best-seller by Dennis Smith, a former New York firefighter who has made a career of writing about the firehouse. But there is also the consistent suggestion in these programs that we are moving into another psychic space -- a phase of response that involves a less aggressive, more questioning response of our identity in the wake of Sept. 11.

One of the most interesting in this regard is PBS's Caught in the Crossfire: Arab Americans in War Time, a documentary that looks at three Arabs now living in New York City in terms of how their lives have been affected by events of Sept. 11. The film has major problems, like failing to clearly explain whether two of the three are even U.S. citizens. But one of the profiles -- that of NYPD Officer Ahmed Nasser, a U.S. citizen born in Yemen -- is one of the most illuminating of all the hundreds stories told in the anniversary programs.

Filmmakers Brad Lichtenstein and David Van Taylor made a brilliant choice in taking the very symbol of "us" in our initial us-against-them response to the attacks, a New York City rescue worker, and then showing him to be an Arab-born Muslim. I don't think Nasser is on screen for even 20 minutes in this film, but I am certain that no one who watches will be able to see Arab or American identity in simple black-and-white terms.

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