Film Captures Time-Lapse Transformation of Ground Zero, Rebuilding of Lives

PHOTO: Nick Chirls
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It began with hope.

As filmmaker Jim Whitaker stood at Ground Zero, amid the rubble of the World Trade Center one month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he felt a palpable sense of anxiety. Yet he knew that some day, something different would take shape in that bleak landscape.

"I thought, Wow, wouldn't it be great to be able to give an audience a feeling of going from this dread and this anxiety to, in a very short period of time, a feeling of hope," he said.

Whitaker decided that the way to do that would be with cameras: multiple cameras filming at Ground Zero every day, capturing on film the cranes and construction workers tackling the site's ongoing transformation. Today, the result of all that filming -- time-lapse footage from 2001 to 2009 -- is featured in Whitaker's new documentary, "Rebirth."

Though the film debuted earlier this year, Whitaker's cameras, now 14 in all, will stay focused at Ground Zero for years to come. The footage will be provided to the Library of Congress and used for a permanent exhibit at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum located at Ground Zero.

The cameras "will be there until there's some ceremony that happens or someone says, 'O.K., we're finished here,'" Whitaker said.

"Rebirth" also turns the lens on the lives of five people affected directly by the terrorist attacks. Each person was interviewed once a year, every year, until the film's completion.

"I thought, Wouldn't it be interesting to do the same thing in a sense of a time lapse … to watch how they were evolving. To see how they were growing, to see what they were struggling with," Whitaker said. "To see if we could capture a sense of the healing process."

Among the people featured in the film is Nick Chirls, who was 16 when his mother, banker Catherine Chirls, died in the attacks. During Chirls' eulogy at his mother's memorial service, something amazing happened: The first time he said "mother," a bird landed on his head.

"I reach up to figure out what's on my head and it lets me pick it up," Chirls remembered in the film. "I could swear to God there was some sort of recognition. I was just holding this baby sparrow in my hand ... and it looked at me ... and it flew away."

"It's something that cannot be explained," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind my mom was there."

That otherworldy moment nothwithstanding, Chirls' healing was far from smooth.

In the first year after his mother's death, his defining emotion was rage, directed not just at 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden but also at classmates concerned about the treatment of Al Qaeda detainees.

"I go into school and I have to see a flyer from some kid, you know, who's fighting for the rights of the people that killed my mom," he said in the film. "I wanted to punch the kid in the face."

By the second year, some of Chirls' anger was directed at his own father, who remarried. His new wife was one of Catherine Chirls' old friends, Nick Chirls said.

"It's a lonely house. It's a cold house," he said in the film. "My mom is rarely brought up."

By 2004, Chirls was a freshman at Yale University. Though his future looked bright, he by then had become estranged from his father. The following summer, he took a job at his mother's old firm, hoping to keep her memory alive.

"For whatever reason, I feel like I need to do that -- to pick up where she left off," he said.

In 2007, Chirls was finishing college, and questioning whether he wanted to follow in his mother's footsteps after all.

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