“I’m caught between having to move on, but I don’t want to.” The broken words of Tanya Villanueva Tepper, fiancée of a young policeman killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as she attempts to verbalize a very complex emotional predicament early in Jim Whitaker’s indispensable documentary, Rebirth. “I don’t want to feel distant from him, so I have to keep reminding myself,” she continues, further addressing the role memory plays in her daily suffering. Tanya’s is a pain haunted by nostalgia, the imminent ache of the present, and the crippling fear of a future lost. Rebirth doesn’t just document all three variables as something personal and inclusive; the film establishes her human experience as a window into the heartache of a nation, a potent individual pain shared by many.
Whitaker began interviewing Tanya and five other subjects—construction worker Bryan Lyons, firefighter Tim Brown, high schooler Nick Chirls, and accountant Ling Young—immediately after 9/11, then continued to do so through 2009. Each either survived the World Trade Center tragedy or lost relatives and close friends that day. The extended duration of each journey allows Rebirth to take on the power of Michael Apted’s Up Series, a mini time capsule charting a country’s personal history. Over the course of nine years and countless interviews, Whitaker details how debilitating trauma seeps into every aspect of their experience, hollowing out all sense of place and identity before setting into the bones like incurable gout. But Rebirth also focuses on the striking and sudden potential for healing, often in the small moments where past memory starts to represent something other than pain.
While every interviewee is an integral part of the film’s emotional fabric, Tanya and Nick’s stories are Whitaker’s centerpieces. Nick’s mother, who had just started a new job at the World Trade Center the week before 9/11, was killed in the collapse, and the effect of her loss on the impressionable teenager is staggering. Doe-eyed and torn, Nick remembers a baby sparrow landing on his head while giving a speech at his mother’s memorial, the bird allowing him to cup it in his hands before flying away. You can see both the deep sorrow and hope in his eyes, an initial glimmer that tragedy could evolve into something far more resonant with some distance. Still, Nick’s ongoing tumultuous relationship with his father post-9/11 reminds us there are no easy answers when it comes to a situation defined by this type of anger and resentment.
Tanya’s conflicted memory is equally affecting, remembering fiancé Sergio with both a sense of duty and guilt. Her confessions take on an almost religious quality, as if she were treating the camera like a priest, therapeutically unloading her conflicted thoughts and doubts year after year. At the 2006 9/11 memorial, Tanya reads Sergio’s name aloud and says something especially telling: “I carry you. I carry your heart in my heart. And I laugh love, and celebrate life for you.” But years later, even after Tanya is married and has children, she’s still grappling with the guilt of moving on, Sergio’s pictures still littering her living room. Trauma is a never-ending process, and each person experiences it a bit differently.
If Rebirth‘s subjects are active guides documenting a fluid psychological landscape, Whitaker constructs a specific cinematic geography around them with stunning time-lapse photography of Ground Zero. These shots chart the epic reconstruction process and changing political dynamic of New York City as a form of poetic resistance. A trademark Philip Glass score further amplifies the process as something organic, born from a collective sense of purpose and rhythm. These hypnotic montages turn an urban space once decimated by violence into a city symphony of bodies in motion, rapidly shifting skylines, and coordinated work, a grand and forceful visualization of the complex themes each subject experiences on a personal level.
It’s arguable whether or not Rebirth should be seen as the cathartic experience for these characters. But this harrowing film is certainly one of many factors allowing Tanya, Nick, and the rest an outlet to express specific experiences that normally would be too difficult to communicate. In this regard, Rebirth is essentially a platform for discussion and listening, linking the audience and the subjects through a symbiotic relationship of understanding. The documentary’s subjects are framed by a sense of time and space that heightens this communicative relationship in evocative ways, and Whitaker pays due respect to their subject experience, torment, and ultimate rebirth rather than highlighting his own ideological impulses. This type of directorial restraint is something rare in our postmodern world of frenetic documentary filmmaking, where graphics, irony, and archival footage are used to stroke massive egos. This is just one of many reasons Rebirth finds collective transcendence through the veil of so much personal tragedy.