A collective film about a collective experience, “Seven Days in September” concentrates less on the events and immediate aftermath of 9/11 than on how a diverse group of shell-shocked eyewitnesses personally experienced them. Pic assembles tapes shot by 28 Gothamites with portable video cameras, incorporating interviews with several of these chroniclers. History, viewed and interpreted from multiple perspectives, is granted an on-the-spot immediacy and peculiarly pluralistic spin. Docu opened in a few venues in NYC on Sept. 6 and in L.A. a week later, before being strategically and, producers hope, semi-permanently housed in a tourist-friendly multiplex a couple of blocks from Ground Zero.
First third of the film focuses on the infamous date itself. Apreamble shows the city the day before, including a circling, up-close pan around the twin towers from the vantage of a small plane. The catastrophe unfolds in footage only fractionally different from the hours of imagery endlessly recycled on TV. Watching the planes hit and towers crumble in pic’s communal context, though, intersecting the moment-to-moment reality of the ordinary people behind the lens, casts the familiar imagery in a whole new light.
A woman in New Jersey picks up a corporate document blown into her yard and wonders about the fate of the people in the office where it circulated. A man taking refuge from the billowing dust storm caused by the fall of the first tower crouches with other dazed refugees in the lobby of a building which the police assure everyone is “not a target.” Moved on to another building, the man encounters commuters emerging from a subway, disoriented and terrified, unaware of what has happened and incapable, in the devastation, of telling uptown from down. Moments later, the fall of the second tower generates further phantasms of nuclear winter and eerie silence.
A full two-thirds of docu concerns the reactions of fellow New Yorkers to the cataclysm — candlelight vigils, spontaneous outpourings of volunteered goods and services, and angry but civil confrontations outside city mosques. A heated, semi-hysterical free-for-all argument between warmongers and peaceniks in Union Square boils down to a fight between a man and a woman over who was first to pick up human body parts at the disaster site: The commonality of their experience causes them to stop dead in mid-scream and fall weeping into one another’s arms.
This section of docu, a paean to the courage and resiliency of NYC, seems to go on a bit longer than necessary. Then again, this story is no news to New Yorkers since Gotham, famously, has always been strong under siege.
Pic, free of the swelling music, solemn pontificating, and pregnant pauses that characterize so much 9/11 reporting, unspools in a homey patchwork of unprocessed moments. The reminiscences of neighborhood folk, tied to the act of videotaping what are essentially home-movies, prescribes a relatively sane, shared way of coping with larger-than-life trauma.