The calling card of Jim Whitaker’s “Rebirth” is his multiyear time-lapse photography of the rebuilding of 7 World Trade Center, the first structure to rise out of the pit of Ground Zero. But the docu’s more meaningful, moving statement is about the architecture of souls: In charting a handful of survivors over the course of a near-decade, Whitaker erects a unique monument to memory, love, the resilience of guilt and the persistence of life. Though the result is not without its missteps, theatrical play seems a distinct possibility, and sequels inevitable: Those 14 cameras are apparently in operation until 2015.
Had Whitaker begun his film two years ago, he might have produced a very potent statement about the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. But the helmer began his project almost immediately after the catastrophe, when he was president of motion pictures at Imagine (he’s currently chairman of Whitaker Entertainment at Walt Disney Studios), and apparently found his camera subjects early on. As a result, his interviews with them are of the moment, unfiltered by time, and as they proceed through eight years or so of mournings, adjustments and resolutions, unique portraits of unparalleled immediacy emerge. It’s difficult to imagine anything comparable, unless Michael Apted’s “7 Up!” series were condensed into one very long film.
Whitaker’s subjects include the earthy, funny Tanya Villanueva Tepper, whose fiance was lost in the collapse of the towers; the guilt-ridden Tim Brown, who lost his best friend and fellow firefighter; young Nicholas Chirls, who lost his mother and, as a result, his connection with his father; and the often hilarious Ling Young, a veteran of 40 surgeries after being terribly scarred on 9/11, whose sense of humor is nothing short of inspirational.
The interviews are riveting, which makes it unfortunate that the film becomes sentimental during certain sequences, notably the 9/11 first-anniversary ceremonies. Having established a connection with his audience that’s both intelligent and emotionally rich, Whitaker doesn’t need k.d. lang singing “Hallelujah” or Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow.” Both songs are cliches at this point, and passe footage of grieving loved ones seems unworthy of a film that’s so potent and singular in other ways.
Whitaker has also made an obvious decision to sidestep politics, which is a significant miscalculation: If his subject is the psychological healing and spiritual resurrection of those left behind, his refusal to address the effects of a war that was allegedly launched to avenge their loss feels like a glaring omission.
Tech credits are tops, even the score, which is obviously by Philip Glass, but affecting all the same.