On Native Soil: The Documentary of the 9/11 Commission Report

United States

Director: Linda Ellman
Topic: Events surrounding the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, coupled with remarkable story of how victims’ families forced the government to accountability.
Financing: Private investors, including friends and family.
Budget: Approximately $1 million, including costs for narration and licensing news footage for theatrical release
Distribution/broadcast status: Brief theatrical run to qualify; wider distribution pending. Court TV has acquired for broadcast after theatrical and homevid windows.
Shooting format: Betacam, for compatibility with news footage, and mini-DV, including Sony TRV-900.
Why it stands out: Top-drawer editing and reporting help make sense of a complex story. High-impact footage, smartly organized, combines with emotional stories of loss and survival, and the quietly inspiring specter of ordinary Americans, many of them parents of victims, who insisted that the 9/11 Commission be created to investigate the tragedy and implement reforms. Doc includes CNN footage of Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan, declaring his intentions on television in 1997. And former NSC counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke telling victims’ families: “Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you.”
Memorable scene: The World Trade Center’s Tower Two liquefies into a cloud of boiling smoke as it collapses. Harry Walzer, a badly burned survivor and employee at the Cantor Fitzgerald firm, which suffered hundreds of casualties, says of Condoleezza Rice: “She will not acknowledge that (the government) made a misjudgment. And that galls me. That angers me.”
On making the film: Ellman says it occurred to her Christmas 2004, while trying to plow through the 650-page bestselling “9/11 Commission Report,” that the information would be more effective as a film. “The truth about what happened was hiding in plain sight, buried in this book that most people wouldn’t read. When it became obvious to me that there almost wasn’t a 9/11 Commission, that was even more upsetting.”
Hired on by entrepreneur and filmmaker Jeff Hayes, who assembled the financing, Ellman put together a small team of producers and editors that worked on the project over an intense six months. The film was in theaters for an Oscar-qualifying run by July.
The team had originally seen it as a DVD release, but started thinking bigger. “The more we uncovered, the more we realized this was something that should be widely seen,” Ellman says. They enlisted Kevin Costner and Hilary Swank as narrators, with an eye to theatrical release.
The film comes across as a nonpartisan statement, indicting inaction by both the Clinton and Bush administrations. “Our goal was not to make it a political statement. Both administrations were at fault; neither party fares very well.”
An Emmy-winning network news journalist, Ellman is a first-time director. “I’ve covered Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall and political campaigns, but this became an obsession with me. I figured, this is the most important story I will ever tell in my life. And to tell it with the proper respect, and the accuracy it demanded, was an enormous task,” she says.