"Collateral Damages" centers on a handful of New York firefighters in the year following the World Trade Center collapse. Though documentarian Etienne Sauret brings nothing new to this terrain, thoughtful, restrained pic casts a different light on the trauma of 9/11 and on its devastating aftermath.

“Collateral Damages” centers on a handful of New York firefighters in the year following the World Trade Center collapse. Though documentarian Etienne Sauret brings nothing radically new to this well-traversed terrain, thoughtful, restrained pic casts a somewhat different light on the trauma of 9/11 and particularly on its long, devastating aftermath. There are very few images of the disaster itself; docu’s 30-minute companion piece, Sauret’s “The First 24 Hours,” covers that ground quite literally. Pair opens March 3 at Gotham’s Film Forum.

“Damages” (the plural distinguishing this real-life group portrait from the fictional lone-wolf heroics of the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner) avoids the violin strings and flag-waving fervor that infuses schmaltzy docu tributes like “These Men of Conscience.” Indeed, a fireman at one point speaks of the strain of having to deal with the non-stop emotionalism of civilians who show up daily with candles and flowers, seeking heroic idols at a time when the firemen themselves are at their most fragile.

Helmer Sauret delves into how various individuals deal with trauma within a collective macho ethos. Sitting around a firehouse table, the men speak with pride about how they ousted all the unwanted psychiatrists, counselors, and unneeded experts, chasing them out of their kitchen. Yet, in tight close-up, they confess to experiencing never-ending nightmares. They feel cut off from their families, only able to relate to other firemen, relying on unspoken camaraderie and manly horseplay to keep the demons at bay.

All the firefighters tell of their compulsive need to return to Ground Zero week after week, feverishly digging long after any hope of survivors was gone. Sauret’s film almost becomes a form of psychotherapy for some as they struggle to articulate their shock, the camera getting closer and closer as levels of denial fall away.

The only one of the interviewees to seek professional help is Billy Green, sole survivor of a team lost in the collapse of the North Tower (and subject of a separate docu by Sauret).

Curiously, pic’s most violent and dramatic visuals come from the aptly-named Fresh Kill Landfill where huge fire engines, some of them seemingly undamaged, are sprayed, chewed up, shaken and spit out by swarms of bulldozers. This imagery, interpolated often throughout the film, viscerally reps the savagery and waste of the attack.

Tech credits are excellent; sparse but effective music, quietly off-center compositions and absence of overt commentary adding to the cumulative effect.

Collateral Damages

Production

A Turn of the Century Pictures production in association with Emerging Pictures. Produced, directed by Etienne Sauret.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Sauret; editor, Emily Gumpel; music, Stuart Demptster, Stephen Vitiello; sound, Sauret; associate producer, Anne Labro. Reviewed at Film Forum, New York, Feb. 19, 2004. Running time: 57 MIN.

With

Billy Green, Al Sicignano, Capt. Philip Ruvolo, Jack Butler, Pete Romeo, other firefighters of Engine 6, Engine 285, Rescue 2.
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