Spike Lee, like his town, exudes a kind of irreverent resilience. His usual facial expression seems to be saying “see if you can convince me”.
The impression one gets in New York at times is that there are trials awaiting us around every corner. Here, suffering is a kind of people’s birthright -whether they are the daily hardships (the abundance of bad smells coming from the garbage in the summer) or the catastrophic ones (the attacks of September 11th, the first spring of the Covid pandemic- 19).
In his new eight-hour documentary series, “New York Epicenters: 9/11-2021½”, the director captures the relentless spirit of New York. The first of four parts premiered on the 22nd on HBO (not yet available for Latin America).
Seeming to be surrounded by a faint blue glow against a dark backdrop, dozens of New Yorkers testify in interviews that chronicle each phase of the two disasters. The first two parts focus on the pandemic, and the last two deal with the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Many of the faces are well known — Senator Chuck Schumer, Mayor Bill de Blasio and actress Rosie Perez — but most of the story is told from the point of view of those who were least seen but saw the most: healthcare professionals, firefighters, activists and survivors.
They form a sort of chorus, with Lee in the role of conductor, slowing or speeding things up as individual memories harmonize or diverge. I spoke with the director recently via video call about the creation of the series, about his own sense of grief and why he still questions what caused the buildings of the World Trade Center to collapse.
What was the initial germ of the idea for this series? Why did you want to create a documentary tying the New York pandemic experience to 9/11? Well, one thing that tends to be overlooked is that I’m a documentary filmmaker too. But for me it’s still a narrative. I don’t really segment things, I don’t put them into two distinct categories. And I’m a New Yorker. It just made sense. I don’t like to use the term “birthday,” but with the approaching 20 years since 9/11 and with people often saying that New York is the epicenter of Covid, it was natural.
What did you see as the connection between the two events? I think we’re honoring the people who lost their lives from illnesses related to 9/11 and also the more than 660,000 Americans who are no longer here because of Covid. More Americans died from Covid than in World War II, the Korean War, the wars of Vietnam, Iraq and, ironically, Afghanistan. Added together.
You said that you interviewed more than 200 people for the series, including political leaders, actors, health professionals and activists. What people did you look for? We had great researchers—Judy Aley led a phenomenal team. I have people I know and people I read about in the New York Times. We just wanted to interview as complete a group as possible, a kaleidoscope of witnesses. That’s how I describe them: they are witnesses. The only one who said “no” was the NYPD [Departamento de Polícia de Nova York]. The NYPD didn’t do well on this tape. And those images [de policiais agredindo manifestantes do Black Lives Matter em 2020] do not lie. The cops were breaking heads.
Didn’t they want to talk to you? Couldn’t defend themselves? They watched “Do the Right Thing.”
Which of the themes moved you the most? The most moving thing for me, not including the archival footage, is the interviews with people who have lost loved ones. These are difficult interviews to conduct because these people know why they are there. And they know I have to ask tough questions. People open up completely, expose the soul. It was really, really exciting. I can’t understand what they’re going through. It’s hard to ask questions when you know people are going to break down. It’s not easy, it’s not fun, but I have to ask these questions.
The way you are present in many of these moments caught my attention. We hear from you contributing a word of support. What goes through your head when you’re in front of a person who is getting naked in this way? I try not to interrupt them. I can’t do it all the time, but it’s part of my job. We want people to be informed. And one thing is very important: I think they trust me — the people, not the NYPD. These people trust that the documentary will not be something that exploits them, they trust that it will be the best possible look. I don’t want to betray their trust.
We’ve heard of 600,000 killed by Covid or more than 3,000 on 9/11. Those are just numbers, they’re cold. But those numbers are human beings. People who are loved by their spouses, children, friends, family members. Who are these people? Who are the Afghans who were on the plane’s landing gear and crashed? You have to include this human element, you know? It can’t just be a number.
The other thing this shows us, in a rather cruel way, is that life goes on. If you’ve seen “Crooklyn” [“Uma Família de Pernas pro Ar”], you must know that I lost my mother when I was in my second year of college. She never got to watch any of my works. She’s with me all the time, but life goes on, you know? In the case of these interviews, I feel they understand that too. There is no way to replace the love of a loved one, you will miss the person forever, but life goes on. I think this is a very important thing that this movie shows.
There’s a lot of carefree promotion of your favorites: the Yankees, the Knicks, Morehouse, NYU. It wasn’t conscious. It’s just who I am. Even in the case of “Do the Right Thing,” a very serious film, there was humor. This is something that is part of who I am. I think I’m successful with my documentaries because I don’t want people to feel like they’re being interviewed, we’re just chatting. The cameras are there, by chance, but we’re just making small talk, you know?
Even after editing, there is still an amusing irreverence at times. You insert excerpts from “A Few Good Men” and the music video for “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy. This style is different from what you did with “When the Levees Broke” about Hurricane Katrina, which was much darker. Has your approach evolved since then? The difference is this: I just visited New Orleans. I didn’t grow up there. New York is my city. It’s in my DNA in a way that New Orleans isn’t.
What did you learn from your research? I didn’t know about the sea exodus [depois dos ataques ao World Trade Center]. More than half a million New Yorkers left the island [de barco]. More people than in Dunkirk [norte da França].
The last episode of the series takes a lot of time to question how and why the towers fell. You interview members of the conspiracy group Architects and Engineers for the Truth About 9/11. Why did you want to include their point of view? Because I still have doubts. And I hope that maybe the legacy of this documentary is that Congress holds a hearing on 9/11.
Don’t you believe the official explanations? The heat that is needed to cause the steel to melt has not been achieved. And there’s the juxtaposition of how Building 7 fell when you pit it against other collapses of buildings that were demolished. It’s like you’re watching the same thing. But people will come to their own conclusions. My approach is to put this information in the movie and let people decide for themselves. I respect the audience’s intelligence.