MST Times

Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology Newsletter

Project Rebirth: 10 Years, 5 Lives

By • Apr 16th, 2012 • Category: Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design, Lead Story

A 9/11 film’s elegiac tone resonates with those still coping with the emotional remnants of a historic tragedy.

by Dino Sossi

The arc of news-driven, mass media narratives regretfully tends to mimic the form of the tragedies they cover. Intense in coverage. Short in duration. And unfortunately, after the incident mercifully settles down, sometimes are never heard about again. The vibrant red of the lead quickly bleeds dry; the process of recovery is more grey, wan by comparison. And as our interests shift and collective gaze refocuses on the next breaking story, the victims are deserted. Left to their own devices as they fitfully grasp at the remaining fragments of their lives, absorbing the outer chaos, desperately trying to reorder it into some form of lasting inner peace.

Project Rebirth is a documentary that challenges the ephemeral nature of most broadcast news stories, with salutary effects for both viewer and subject. Rebirth chronicles the aftermath of the most wide-reaching tragedy of our recent past, the cataclysmic destruction of the Twin Towers, and brings it to a more human scale. The film examines this atrocity through the prism of five sympathetic survivors as they have been forced to cope with 9/11’s fallout, whether it be physical, spiritual or emotional, sometimes all three in concert.

Rebirth follows the emotional journey of a firefighter dealing with guilt when his best friend does not survive. A female victim’s son who struggles with the practicalities of working in finance like his departed mother did at the time of her passing. It lingers on the story of young woman who lost both her beloved fiancé, and her idyllic dreams of a future together, in one horrific instant. It shows a woman dealing with the physical trauma of surviving a plane’s impact while working in the South Tower. And it conveys a construction worker’s pain after losing a brother and being left to build the Freedom Tower, and rebuild his life, alone. Their individual narratives intertwined through the inescapable bind of a sudden, inconceivable and absolute loss.

Democratic pluralistic societies necessitate a level of deliberation in their governance that can surpass the excessive, bridge into the seemingly incomprehensible and sometimes even verge on the ludicrous. Practical outcomes of the political process are utterly slow in their embodiment. The cogs of change do turn, but they move deliberately, over a prolonged gestation period. And the politically- and emotionally-charged grounds of Ground Zero have certainly not been immune. Far from it.

The most breathtaking aesthetic choice of Rebirth is the time-lapse photography that documents this glacially slow rebuilding of the 9/11 site. The subtle growth at Ground Zero, almost imperceptible to the naked eye, acts as a metaphor for the equally gradual reshaping of lives consumed by the aftermath of 9/11. Life simply cannot remain the same in the dark, omnipresent shadow of this soul-wearying conflagration. The only questions are the degree of change, the painful existential cost it must exact and the time it takes. Is following a mother’s career in finance the most appropriate homage to make up for a son’s sense of loss? When is it right to move on after the unexpected death of a beloved fiancé, the moment when it is appropriate to finally let go of your shared dreams together? Are endless surgeries the most suitable way to deal with disabling disfigurement? Or should we just surrender, the price we all must eventually pay as human beings fashioned in a fragile, tender and ultimately mortal form?

In a society obsessed with novelty and plagued by an ever-maddening quickness of pace, a slow building symphony of steady construction provides an appropriate framework to allow us to bear silent witness to these lives indelibly shaped by the defining tragedy of the new millennium.

To these victims, 9/11 is not just a terrorist act with shock waves that can still be felt in the geopolitical realities of the present as well as, most likely, distant future.

No. It is far more piercing.

For them, a paradigm has become inverted. The political has become the intensely personal. Infused with the most intimate and deeply profound emotions possible. And the existential detritus caused by the deaths of thousands of innocents caused by the collapse of two gleaming towers, erected as a testament to the hypercapitalism of our times, is something that can only be swept away slowly. Carefully. Painfully. Year-by-endless-year. Moment-by-searing-moment. Never truly exorcised from a psyche scarred deeply, irrevocably.

Similar to the luminous glow of the newest buildings on this hallowed site, as they stretch out to the boundless heavens above, reaching for a peace that these earth-bound victims can never have, the quiet dignity with which these five solemn people struggle to resuscitate their shattered souls is something equally dazzling to behold.

MST Professor Frank Moretti screened Project Rebirth in the Cowin Center last semester. His Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) offers educational initiatives using Project Rebirth as a resource.


Dino Sossi studies Instructional Technology and Media. He previously worked for the CBS television news magazine “60 Minutes.”


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