On the morning of September 11, 2001, Stuyvesant High School student Mohammad Haque sat in a classroom at the magnet school’s Chambers Street location in Manhattan, approximately six blocks away, and on the other side of the West Side Highway, from the World Trade Center. He had a perfect view of the towers when American Airlines Flight 11 was flown into the building.
Of course, Haque was not alone. Stuyvesant boasted between 700 and 800 students per grade at the time. This national tragedy, just days into the new school year, proved transformative for most. Some of the youngest — freshmen at ages 13 and 14 — were just barely getting used to their new commute and surroundings, taking buses and trains into Manhattan from various boroughs. The oldest students were on the edge of turning 18, entering into their senior year after finding a home in Stuyvesant already, and suddenly that home seemed to be threatened.
Eighteen years later, filmmaker Amy Schatz brought a handful of Stuyvesant students, including Haque, together to recount their experiences on the day, as well as in the subsequent weeks and months that followed. The result is a half-hour documentary entitled “In The Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11” that will debut on HBO on Sept. 11 of this year.
“These students ended up being, to me, a nice representation of America: people of diverse backgrounds, first and second generation Americans, children of immigrants, immigrants themselves. To me, it’s a picture of what America is,” Schatz tells Variety. But, she admits, “it wasn’t the story we set out to tell.”
An acclaimed documentarian in the kids’ space, including on sensitive topics such as divorce, climate change, the Holocaust and the Parkland shootings, Schatz began working with HBO and the 9/11 Tribute Museum on a piece that could explain to today’s children what happened and why on that infamous day. During her research for that documentary (which is entitled “What Happened on September 11” and launches the same day as “In The Shadow of the Towers”), she learned about “With Their Eyes,” a play that Stuyvesant students produced in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. She then reached out to the alumni involved in that production for her new one.
“I began interviews with each thinking it would be for our children’s show and they could speak about the experience of being a young person and what they witnessed and how it was, but it became clear when sitting in the dark room conducting these interviews that there was something very powerful and very moving in their stories and that perhaps there was a very poignant second film to be made,” she says.
Thus, “In The Shadow of the Towers” was born.
This documentary consists of the interviews with eight Stuyvesant alumni that Schatz originally conducted for “What Happened On September 11.” “With Their Eyes” is mentioned within but Schatz also made a separate film out of that material, too, giving her a total of three upcoming Sept. 11 documentary projects with the premium cabler.
“It’s a piece of the 9/11 story that you don’t hear very much about, and, to me, it was an eye-opening project,” Schatz says.
Schatz admits they would have “thrown the net wider” to include more stories and perspectives if the plan from the beginning was to document the Stuyvesant experience. While the goal of “What Happened on September 11” is to teach those without personal memories about the events, Schatz says she was much more interested in “telling eight people’s stories of the day and the impact on their lives” with “In The Shadow of the Towers.”
Haque is one of the eight. A member of the senior class on the day of the attacks, Haque lost an uncle in the World Trade Center. He shares that he signed onto the project because he saw value in telling stories from the “time capsule of children’s perspectives of Sept. 11.” In the years since the attacks and then graduating from Stuyvesant, Haque says he has had people reach out to him about his experience because their school is performing “With Their Eyes.” But, he admits, talking about his experience on the day “comes up a lot less than I would expect.
“The only times we hear about it are in a very punchline ‘post-9/11’ [way],” he says of the more mainstream coverage of late. “We use that term so often in the news and in the media that I feel we forget about what happened and the people that were lost and the families that were affected. We all have the footage. We all have seen it a million times. Some of us can’t even watch it anymore; it’s very hard for me to see footage from that day. But I think it’s really about what people were experiencing. I wanted to share in a way that was respectful of my uncle’s family, but also to remind people that people of different ethnicities died on that day, but they were all New Yorkers. And I think the things that make New York the strongest were also why we had so much loss on that day. There were so many people from so many walks of life, and their families were never the same afterwards. [It’s] not just people who lost family members, but people who experienced the fear and trauma of that day — the survivors.
Another “In The Shadow of the Towers” interviewee is Ilya Feldsherov, who was expecting senior picture day when he stepped into Stuyvesant on Sept. 11. He, too, signed on because he saw the value in educating “the next generation who has always lived in this world, who didn’t have a ‘before’ and ‘after’ world,” but he admits he doesn’t know if he was really “ready” to tell his story in full, emotional detail.
“It was very difficult to unpack it. It felt emotionally revealing to try to go back and capture what we remembered from that day — the experience — and portray it not just honestly but also accuracy,” he says. “Those of us who had the shared experience, we all just understood what we had been through, but we never really talked about it. My parents never really asked me about it. They were not people that rehashed things like that. Ukranians don’t believe in therapy, for example, so talking about it may have been therapeutic, but we didn’t really do that. So anyone else I would talk to, I would tell it on a surface level, but never really get into more about what it meant, how we felt. I think the first time I thought through any of those things and talked about it was with Amy.”
Yet another is Liz O’Callahan, who was also a senior at the time. She remembers realizing that everyone had their own story to tell after the events of Sept. 11 but “continuing to pile them on top of each other out-loud felt really hard at the time, and in trying to share the stories of others, you sort of minimize your own story.” Still, she acknowledges that because of Stuyvesant’s position as being a well-known school in the area, its population because more visible than others. (She gave news interviews in front of the school once it reopened after the attacks.) So, years later, when she was approached to tell her story again — and a bit more thoroughly — she says it was important to put her story first and answer the “level of responsibility” with which that spotlight came.
“I think this film really aims to remind people that it wasn’t just adults who were down there, that it wasn’t just first responders. Young people had legitimate stories to tell that are still legitimate stories,” she says. “For me, it’s been important to have an opportunity to re-face the things that I experienced and hadn’t thought about since that day.”
Revisiting the Stuyvesant experience now, on the 18th anniversary of Sept. 11, is particularly poignant for the “In The Shadow of the Towers” group because they were on the cusp of adulthood when the events took place and have now spent more than half their lives living in the post-Sept. 11 world.
“This is the year where if you’re not 18 yet — if you’re a minor — you weren’t alive when this happened. So it really is a generation of children who didn’t experience, on any level, the events of that day in a personal way,” she explains. “These are kids that never had a time in their lives that was pre-9/11, and I think that really changed the way the United States has acted in the world.”
Adds Feldsherov: “I think it’s important to talk about these things now, before memory fade even more than it has.”
Schatz says her documentary “doesn’t profess to be the Stuyvesant experience” but rather act as a “collection of voices.” She mixed the interviews with archival photos taken by Stuyvesant alumnus Ethan Moses (who is not interviewed in the documentary), as well as news footage of the attacks and the aftermath in New York City that aligned with the stories the interviewees were telling. The result is something she admits is too graphic for her usual audience, but she hopes will find viewers in the slightly older, teenage and post-teenage demographic.
“Thinking about my own children, would I want them to basically feel how it felt to be a 13-year-old in the middle of this chaotic scene? Just thinking about those ideas for kids and how would that feel — that uncertainty, the fear, not even seeing the buildings crumbling or the people jumping but just the idea of, ‘Can I get home?’ I felt that those things were too difficult for a young audience,” she says.
Even with her sights set on a slightly older audience than usual, though, Schatz says she didn’t set out to make a political statement with her slate of Sept. 11 projects — although some did choose to touch on those larger issues in their interviews. O’Callahan sang a bit of the graduation song on-camera, pointing out the kind of allegiance to country it called for was an unquestioning one, and that was bulls—, and she also mentioned how debates in some classes as the months in the school year went on became about whether or not the country should be at war. Haque admitted feeling conflicted when his parents put patriotic bumper stickers on their cars, because he didn’t feel like they should have to prove anything. Himanshu Suri, who has become known as the rapper Heems, not only sat for an interview but also let Schatz play his song “Flag Shopping,” which recounts some of the racism he experienced after the events Sept. 11, over the closing credits of the film.
“I think we were probably all intentionally diplomatic,” O’Callahan says, “but I think part of that intention is that the political climate that we’re in right now makes it not feel entirely safe to make what are otherwise not particularly inflammatory comments. That wasn’t a big statement for me when I said it, and when I watch it now, it makes me nervous.”
Similarly, the interviewees touch on post-Sept. 11 health in mentions of piling backpacks on top of air conditioners and the burning, chemical smell that permeated lower Manhattan when school resumed its session. Stuyvesant was used as a command center for the efforts at Ground Zero in the immediate weeks after the attacks. Not only had debris and other particles flooded the building through open windows and air vents on the day, but more was tracked into the halls as time went on. The building was cleaned before students returned to classes there, but the barge carrying the debris from Ground Zero was located right behind the school and the central air system was not cleaned until the summer of 2002. Since the documentary focuses on the day of and brief months after the attacks, it does not include discussion of what that has meant for the alumni in the years since — not even in regards to interview subject Catherine Choy, who passed away recently from cancer that may have been related to her exposure to toxins on and after Sept. 11. The doc is now dedicated to her, though.
“It’s a separate story and one that really hasn’t been explored,” Feldsherov says. “A lot of people have had cancer, and fortunately some of them have beaten it, at least so far, but is the rate of those illnesses higher in Stuyvesant students who went back to school too early than the general population?”
While the world lost almost 3000 people on Sept. 11 and that number has steadily grown over the years as soldiers did not return from the subsequent war and first responders and other individuals close to the sites began developing diseases, Schatz didn’t want to focus solely on the darkness.
“What was beautiful for me was the sense of optimism and hope and the feeling of togetherness they described in Stuyvesant,” Schatz says. “The film doesn’t have a rosy ending; it has an ending that says, ‘This is our world, we need to fix it.’ But this is still a place of opportunity, and this country still stands for something, so we need to keep working on making our world a better place.”
Disclaimer: The author of this piece is a member of Stuyvesant High School’s Class of 2002 and was in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. However, although she has a history with some of the interview subjects within this piece and a personal connection to the events of the day, she was not involved in the making of this documentary.
Pictured: The view of Ground Zero from the Chambers Street bridge to Stuyvesant High School in late fall 2001, taken by the author.