Today marks the 18thanniversary of 9/11. Most adults can remember exactly where they were when the hijacked planes struck the Twin Towers, resulting in the deaths of 2,977 innocent victims. Yet for children and young adults, September 11, 2001, is simply an event in history that doesn’t seem to have much bearing on their lives.
A new HBO documentary, What Happened on September 11, which premieres today, hopes to help a younger generation understand what 9/11 means and how it reflects on the present. The film’s director Amy Schatz was inspired to create the documentary after a third grader told her about a playdate she had with a friend where they googled “sept. 11 attacks.”
“When a child does that, what he or she finds are some pretty horrific images that are not necessarily appropriate for kids,” Schatz said yesterday. “So, I felt a responsibility to try to fill that void and try to give kids something that isn’t horrifying and kind of fills in the gap.”
The half-hour film will debut today at 6 p.m. on HBO. A companion piece, which focuses on the memories of former students at a high school near Ground Zero, will air at 9 p.m. on the cable channel. This isn’t the first time Schatz has tackled historical events in an attempt to shed light on painful moments in our collective past. In The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm, the filmmaker focused on the Holocaust, while another, Song of Parkland, dealt with the Parkland shooting.
For her new film, Schatz worked with the 9/11 Memorial Museum on the story, filming two men giving presentations to third graders. Stephen Kern, who worked on the 62nd floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, talks about being evacuated in the aftermath of the attack, while Matthew Crawford, whose father was a firefighter who died that day, talks about his experience. Schatz also found a middle school in Secaucus, New Jersey, that uses art and poetry to teach history, thereby, allowing students to process the emotions of what they have learned.
“One of the biggest questions the kids have is ‘why? ‘Why would somebody do that? Why would there be such cruelty?'” she said. “That’s a very difficult thing to grapple with and answer so that was the trickiest part of the project.”
Though appropriate for young children, the documentary inevitably shows some of the horrifying images of that day, such as the moment when the second plane struck the tower as well as the collapse of each tower and the clouds of debris that inundated the city streets. Schatz felt that she needed to include the images since children are aware of them but chose not to linger on the horror.
She also interviewed alumni of Stuyvesant High School near the World Trade Center but their recollections were too excruciating for her intended audience, therefore, she directed a companion piece, In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9-11, which will air on HBO three hours after the first film. She is also working on a school curriculum to teach children about the tragedy and will make her documentary available to schools for free.
“You can’t protect kids from what they’re going to come across,” she said. “It seemed to me there was an opportunity to put something out there that is age-appropriate and not too scary and give them the tools they need to understand the world around them.”