Spike Lee, like his town, exudes a sort of irreverent resilience. His usual facial expression seems to say “see if you can convince me”.
The feeling that we sometimes get in New York is that there are hardships waiting for us around every corner. Suffering here is a kind of birthright – whether it is daily hardships (the abundance of bad smells from garbage cans in summer) or catastrophic (the September 11 attacks, the first spring of the Covid-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.
Appearing to be surrounded by a faint blue glow against a dark background, dozens of New Yorkers testify in interviews that recount each phase of the two disasters. The first two parts focus on the pandemic, and the last two deal with 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 perspective of those who have been least seen but who have seen the more: healthcare professionals, firefighters, activists and survivors. They form a sort of choir, with Lee in the role of conductor, slowing or speeding things up as individual memories harmonize or diverge.
I recently spoke with the director via video call about the show’s creation, his own sense of grief, and why he’s still wondering what caused the World Trade Center buildings to collapse.
What was the initial seed for the idea of this series? Why did you want to create a documentary linking the experience of the New York pandemic to September 11? Well, one thing that tends to get overlooked is that I’m a documentary maker too. But for me, it’s still a story. I don’t really segment things, I don’t categorize them into two separate categories. And I’m New Yorker. It made sense. I hate to use the term “anniversary,” but with the 20 years since 9/11 and with the people who often say New York is the epicenter of Covid, that was natural.
What do you think is the link between the two events? I think we honor the people who lost their lives to 9/11-related illnesses and also the over 660,000 Americans who are no longer here due to Covid. More Americans have died from Covid-19 than Americans have died in World War II, the Korean War, the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and, ironically, Afghanistan. Added.
You said you interviewed over 200 people for the show, including political leaders, actors, medical professionals, and activists. Who did you look for? We had great researchers — Judy Aley was leading a phenomenal team. I have people I know and people I read in the New York Times. We just wanted to interview as complete a group as possible, a kaleidoscope of witnesses. This is how I describe them: they are witnesses. The only one who said “no” was the NYPD [Departamento de Polícia de Nova York]. The NYPD did not do well on this tape. And these 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? Unable to defend yourself? They watched “Do the Right Thing”.
Which of the themes touched you the most? The most moving thing for me, besides the archive 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 do not understand what they are going through. It’s hard to ask questions when you know people are going to crack. 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 a word of support or encouragement. What goes through your mind when you sit in front of someone who undresses 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 the documentary won’t be something that exploits them, they trust it will look the best it can be. And I don’t want to betray their trust.
We have heard of 600,000 killed by Covid or over 3,000 on September 11. These are just numbers, they are cold. But these 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 landing gear of the plane and who crashed? You have to include that human element, you know? It cannot be just a number.
The other thing it shows us, in a pretty 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 the second year of college. She has never been able to look at any of my works. She’s with me all the time, but life goes on, you know? In the case of these interviews with these people who have lost loved ones, I have the impression that they understand that too. There is no way to replace the love of a loved one, you will miss that person forever, but life goes on. I think this is a very important thing that this film shows.
There’s a lot of carefree promotion of your favorites: Yankees, Knicks, Morehouse, NYU. It was not conscious. It’s just who I am. Even in the case of “Do It Right”, a very serious film, there was humor. It’s 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 I’m being interviewed, we’re just chatting. The cameras are there, by chance, but we’re just chatting, you know?
Even after editing, there is still sometimes a funny irreverence. You put in clips from “A Few Good Men” and Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” music video. This style is different from what you did with “When the Dikes Broke” about Hurricane Katrina, which was much darker. Has your approach changed since? 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 did not know about the exodus from the sea [depois dos ataques ao World Trade Center]. More than half a million New Yorkers have left the island [de barco]. More people than in Dunkirk [norte da França].
The last episode of the series takes a long time to wonder how and why the towers fell. You interview several members of the Architects and Engineers for the Truth About 9/11 conspiracy group. 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 necessary to melt the steel has not been reached. And there is the juxtaposition of how Building 7 fell when you compare it to other collapses of buildings that have been demolished. It is as if you are looking at the same thing. But people will draw their own conclusions. My approach is to put that information in the movie and let people decide for themselves. I respect the intelligence of the public.