THE BIG TALK
An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
Steven Rosenbaum set out to make a movie about 9/11 and wound up instead with the world’s largest archive of video of that infamous terrorist attack.
So he donated the stash to the 9/11 Memorial Museum and made a documentary he never expected about it — or more accurately, about the museum’s launch and some of the creative bickering that plagued its creation.
And, in a sign of how the world has changed since that harrowing day, the resultant film, “The Outsider” will be the first movie that social media giant Facebook will debut as a paid feature on its site to a global audience on August 19.
“I thought the movie and the museum would foster all kinds of conversations and force Americans to have a good, sophisticated discussion about where we sit in the world,” Mr. Rosenbaum said.
Now just where Mr. Rosenbaum sees America’s perch isn’t some black-and-white still shot. The same is true for Michael Shulan, the “outsider” of the film’s title who lived that fateful day in an apartment near the corner of Greene and Prince streets in SoHo. From the vacant space on the ground floor of that building, Mr. Shulan’s odyssey and the seeds of the film itself began on the very next day after the terrorist strike.
“On the storefront someone had taped up a copy of the 9/11 newspaper,” he recalls at the documentary’s beginning. “And people were touching this thing and seeming to take some solace, and I suddenly remembered I had a picture of the World Trade Center.”
Mr. Shulan taped that photo — an actual black-and-white showing the twin towers and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor — next to the newspaper and, within hours, more photos began to appear. Eventually, the space became an impromptu art gallery — “a democracy of photographs” — and people streamed in looking at scores of pictures taped on the walls like a giant communal refrigerator door.
From that shoestring start, Mr. Shulan wound up “a global expert in 9/11 images,” and the creative director of the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum, a project just then getting off the ground. The other directors were high-powered professionals from the museum world, people with “glittering resumes and decades of cumulative experience” such as Alice Greenwald, who had also worked at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
As ‘the outsider’ and the amateur, Mr. Shulan’s vision of a visible, growing museum clashed with the approach favored by the professionals.
“‘Creative director.’ It sounds great, but what is it?” Mr. Shulan asks at the outset.
Mr. Rosenbaum was brought on to film the process, but wound up making a different documentary than planned, partly because Mr. Shulan proved so compelling and partly because he shares most, though not all, of Mr. Shulan’s concerns.
For the questions shown on a whiteboard when the staff begins — “Bin Laden is a central figure,” “trajectory of terrorism,” “declaration of war on America,” “What is al Queda?” — few answers are provided by the end.
Even the overarching symbolism of the museum — “Is it a shrine?” “Is it a collection?” “Is it a portal, an archive?” — barely come into focus by the end of “The Outsider.”
Today, New York’s 9/11 Memorial is a near-invisible, underground affair, more like a tomb than a living tribute to the lost, Mr. Rosenbaum said. As such, there is something sterile, something almost immaculate, marking the place where such violence and bloodshed occured.
“We showed a preview of the movie to some families of 9/11 victims,” Mr. Rosenbaum said. “What they said to us afterward was, ‘Thank you, we feel so mistreated by the museum.”
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum directors told The Washington Times that Mr. Shulan and Mr. Rosenbaum‘s movie sought to squeeze the material and the experience of the museum’s patrons into a predetermined ideological lens, an approach that enjoyed far from universal support.
“The film looks at the museum through a very specific ideological lens which we do not share,” the board said in a statement. “At the moment when so many institutions in the U.S. are subject to ideological and partisan divisions, the Memorial & Museum must remain a sacred space that seeks to educate and unify. We made clear to the filmmakers that we were disappointed by many of their decisions, which we think are disrespectful towards victims and their families.”
Mr. Ronsenbaum is unpersuaded the final decisions were better for those victims’ families, dozens of which thanked him after their “The Outsider” pre-screening.
“People died because the buildings literally crushed them into the ground,” Mr. Rosenbaum said. “And now you’re putting the museum underground? Like kept in the basement?”
The documentary, even though focused on what “came after,” is not for the faint of heart. For example, there is a 911 call in its entirety, from a desperate Melissa Doi, trapped on the 83rd floor of one of the twin towers, minutes so excruciating the team decides to exclude it.
Even the inanimate remains can cause a shudder. One part of the museum is designed around “the last column” — a 70,000-pound stake of steel that was the last pulled from the wreckage of the collapsed skyscrapers.
In discussions, Ms. Greenwald is shown asking salient questions such as, “How do you balance security and freedom when terrorism is a reality? We don’t have the answer.”
But, in the end, Mr. Rosenbaum said a too-careful attitude leaves the museum bereft of spark and humanity. So tight are the final decisions that the museum has the unheard-of policy of not allowing historians to use material without prior approval, an arrangement Mr. Rosenbaum said serious scholars will never agree to, thus effectively sealing off the material.
“They saw their role as trying to protect the story,” Mr. Rosenbaum said. “The real question for viewers is, ‘If they are not allowing an open conversation, why?’”