I’ve not been in a very happy place recently, and it put me off updating this blog for a while. Because you know what I’m learning about docs from this project?
Docs can be a very tough watch.
And this one was the toughest yet.
Today I watched 102 Minutes That Changed America.
But first, I think, an apology.
I haven’t updated this site in months. I know I don’t have many (or any) readers right now – but the only way a blog can properly attract readers is by maintaining a regular or semi-regular update schedule, and putting out quality content. As I said above, I stopped updating this blog because documentaries, especially ones which tackle very important issues, often aren’t exactly uplifting. They frequently deal with the darkest and bleakest of subject matters, and in the last few months – after the death of someone very close to me – I wasn’t in the right place to go back to that.
So I put the blog on hold for a while, and then updating it again started to look intimidating. Now we’re in 2014, though, the newest of years, I feel I can put all that behind me and start this blog anew. I’ve still got 98 films left to watch, dammit.
On returning to the project, I knew I should probably bolster my enthusiasm by watching something relatively light-hearted. I knew there were a few docs on the List which might fit the bill – Jiro Dreams of Sushi, perhaps, which I hear is a food doc about a man’s skill for preparing raw fish. This doesn’t sound too traumatizing, unless you are a raw fish. Or Winnebago Man, which is about the origins of an internet meme.
But somehow I got caught up on Wikipedia reading about 9/11, and then, with an air of solemn resignation, I ended up watching 102 Minutes That Changed America instead.
I think if you want a word to sum up this documentary, it would be “harrowing.” This much should probably be obvious from the premise.
That said, though, it’s not as traumatizing as it could have been. I was convinced, when I started watching, that there was going to be some seriously disturbing footage of victims of the attacks, or even worse, audio records of phone-calls from inside the towers after the planes hit. I was dreading it, but there was nothing gory, and – perhaps more surprisingly – the victims of the attacks barely featured. The one moment that stands out to me occurs early into the documentary, as a camera tracks a man falling from the tower. We watch as this black shape falls – clearly a human being, tumbling over and over. It was a moment that hit deep, but even here, the focus wasn’t on the poor man jumping from the burning building – it was on the people filming as it happened. We hear a young female voice from behind the camera – “Dad, what is that falling?”
102 Minutes That Changed America takes place in real time, using almost exclusively amateur footage which was filmed in the 102 minutes between the first plane hitting the North Tower, and the South Tower collapsing. All of this footage is filmed outside the towers, sometimes at a great distance – capturing the confused faces, the shocked screams, the panic and the anger. Once again, I must emphasize – this is not a film about the attack, but about the immediate reaction to the attack. Its focus is almost anthropological. I’m making this so clear because I almost didn’t watch it, expecting some parts of it to be too disturbing. There are certain moments that are disturbing, but again – as I’ve said – it would more accurately described as “harrowing.” “Exhausting.” But still worth watching.
There’s not much point providing a summary of events, to be honest, as I did for Which Way Home and Grizzly Man. Everyone knows this story, and knows its relevance. Two planes hit two towers, which collapse, in a tragedy that kills almost 3000 people. I suspect most of the people reading this will remember where they were when it happened – and this film will not only absorb you, it will transport you utterly to that moment. To your own immediate reaction, which – assuming you live in the Western world – would have probably been a similar but muted version of what the New Yorkers featured in this documentary go through.
The reactions we mostly hear are from those behind the cameras. These are amateurs, filming only because something big has happened and they were there to film it; and they provide their own narration, speaking to themselves or to their friends or over the phone as they film. “No way,” says one filmer, recording the now-familiar image of smoke pouring from the North Tower. “Holy mofo, what is that though?” There’s a pause. “Maybe it was just an explosion or something?”
At first, no-one even mentions terrorists. One thing that I felt was missing from 102 Minutes was news footage – we hear audio of news presenters dispersed occasionally throughout, but I would have liked to have seen the media’s reaction contrasting to that of the amateurs filming. I suspect that’s the point of the film – to capture the reaction of people who were there, who were caught up in it, who didn’t want to be there – but I feel like those people were themselves so reliant on the news that missing out any news footage at all was a missed opportunity.
That’s not to say that focusing on such a localized level was a mistake. I think it was the perfect way to capture something about that terrible day – to make the film both a study in humanity, and a 102-minute-long snapshot of a particular, hugely significant moment.
But it would have been interesting to see who suspected terrorist involvement first, the news or the locals – because before the second plane hits, it seems that there’s an implicit assumption that this is some terrible accident. Only one man says otherwise, as he films the gouts of smoke from afar – “I hope it wasn’t a terrorist attack. ‘Cos that means the tunnels are next, the bridges are next, y’know… This is not good. Not good at all.”
As soon as the second plane hits, of course, that changes. In perhaps the second-most striking scene (after the man falling), a family are having a conversation about the event while one of them films the burning tower – all of them presuming the worst part of the disaster already over. Then there is an enormous, billowing explosion as the second plane crashes in, and terrified screams. “Oh my God!” one of them shouts. “It’s terrorists! What do we do?”
As time passes, we see people in various stages of grief and disbelief, interspersed with footage of grimly heroic firefighters and audio of emergency services personnel talking to those inside the building (we do not hear those inside at all… again, this documentary is so clearly about the reaction of those on the outside). We see panic-inducing misinformation being spread, as one elderly man asserts confidently that “the news says a plane is going to hit us every half-hour.” We see others piecing it together: “Apparently, the FBI got word that these planes were hijacked.” And finally, late into the film, we see the anger set in. “It’s terrible. A tragedy,” says one woman, watching the debris fall from afar with binoculars. “I think we should go to war, like, now.”
“We should go to Bin Laden, all those Arab countries,” says one businessman in Times Square, “and we should just blow them up. Kill them.”
102 Minutes That Changed America couldn’t help being a powerful film, because it depicts such a powerful event. It’s a record, rather than a narrative – where Grizzly Man and Which Way Home narrativized the stories they told, this was a story we already knew. I think it was wise to just present it as a grim snapshot, and leave it at that. But it’s a record that is expertly put together – I follow Film Crit Hulk on Twitter, who dispenses surprising wisdom and smashings in equal degree. When talking about editing, he argues (in his trademark allcaps) that “GREAT EDITING ISN’T ABOUT MAKING THINGS SHORTER. GREAT EDITING IS MAKING A 4 HOUR MOVIE FEEL LIKE A 2 HOUR ONE.” This is painfully true – in the films with the best editing, it’s hard to notice that editing is occurring at all. 102 Minutes That Changed America has fantastic editing. Given that this is all amateur footage, the documentarian’s real skills are hidden – because they didn’t film anything, but rather gathered it in one place and spliced it together into a watchable whole. All 102 minutes of the film seem to go on forever, but also far too fast – because you’re so trapped in the moment, so wrapped in living these people’s reactions alongside them, and that’s how time passes in a real emergency. And the editing never takes you out of the experience.
I also have to mention the dissonant, off-key music which fades in and out of the film when necessary; it’s, again, the type of music which fades into the background rather than dominates, but it keeps the viewer in a state of nigh-unbearable disquiet throughout.
As the towers collapse, New York is drowned in dust. Huge swathes of it sweep over the city, turning the people chalk-white. We see people flee as a tide, an onslaught, of dust comes to overwhelm them. When it passes, the city is rendered alien, almost moon-like. At this point, the viewer is living these events with these people, experiencing it alongside them – and the collapsing towers, and ensuing dust and debris, is almost as overwhelming for us as it is for them. It’s a threat that borders on the existential. For a moment, everything vanishes.
This is not a film for the faint-hearted, but it’s an important film. I’m a great believer in the idea that terrible things should not be erased from history, never forgotten, never swept aside – no matter how disturbing or disquieting we might find them. 102 Minutes is less a documentary than it is a historical document. There is no narrative, no explanation, and least of all is there any presence of the documentarian themselves. Not here a Werner Herzog voiceover, or even a Which Way Home-style text crawl – rather, it puts you in the moment, in real time, without the safety and distance that a framing device provides. I don’t know quite how to react to that – does this make it better than the other two films I’ve watched for this blog? I certainly wouldn’t want all documentaries to be like this, or even the majority of them. But here, for this particular subject, with this amount of raw footage available and for an event that everyone knows everything about already, it works. It more than works. It’s stunning.
For me, a big part of the value in documentaries is that they teach you about things we didn’t already know. Everyone knows about 9/11. But very few know what it was like to be there. If you can stomach that, if you want to see history unfold from the centre of the storm – not the eye, there’s no calm here – then watch 102 Minutes That Changed America.
Documentary Trope of the Day: There is almost nothing here of the documentarian’s touch. I can’t exactly choose “good editing” as a trope. All there is, really, to this film, is found footage – and I expect I won’t find another documentary for which that trope is embodied quite as thoroughly as here. Poring through found footage – whether it be the splintered perspective on 9/11 presented here, or the solitary diaries of Timothy Treadwell – can be a fascinating study in not just what was being filmed, but why it was being filmed, who was filming it, and why ‘we’ (in the collective sense) feel that need to film things at all.