"I'll always grieve," says Tanya Villanueva Tepper in the closing moments of Rebirth. "But it doesn't stop me from living a life of joy."
Tepper lost her firefighter fiancée on Sept. 11, 2001. In director Jim Whitaker's documentary film, she is one of five people, all of them personally affected - and deeply traumatized - by the attacks on the World Trade Center. Whitaker interviewed each of them annually, chronologically, over an eight-year period.
Rebirth is appropriately titled. In addition to the diverse quintet of New Yorkers whose journeys are chronicled, the film also shows us - through stunning time-lapse photography - how the city transformed Ground Zero from a muddy pit into a monument to the 2,753 whose lives were lost.
It's not a re-cap of the events of 9/11. There's no footage of the planes, the collapsing buildings or the horror and chaos at the site.
Rather, Whitaker lets each person tell his or her story, from the moment they heard they'd lost dear friends or loved ones, through whatever process brought them to a healing place in 2009, when filming wrapped.
There's 14-year-old Nick Cherls, whose mother worked on the 104th floor; construction worker Bryan Lyons, who lost his firefighter brother; another firefighter, Tim Brown, who recalls his best friend, the precinct captain, instructing him to stay back as he went into the burning building to search for victims.
The captain never made it out. Brown dealt with many tough emotions over the years, including crippling bouts of survivor guilt.
Most compelling of all is Ling Young, who worked on the upper floors of the South Tower and suffered massive burns over much of her body. She underwent 40 surgical procedures over eight years, including painful skin grafts and even a knuckle joint replacement (with Whitaker's camera in the operating room).
Some of the surgeries were successful; others were not. As the years progress, Young talks openly about her fears and anxieties. Her struggles to cope. We watch the scars on her face and arms fade (although not entirely), her hair turn to white, and her eventual acceptance of the fact that she's lucky to be alive at all. "No more surgeries," she says with a genuine smile. "I'm done."
Each of the others go through many shades of emotion. The teenager has a falling out with his father, after Dad remarries; the construction worker fights with his wife, takes depression medication and tries to cope.
Tanya Villanueva Tepper finds love again - at a cost - and becomes a mother.
As the years pass, the terrible sadness fades, but not the memories, and each person, in their own way, finds the strength to move on.
There are complex emotions at work here. And as these five people pass through grief, anger, acceptance and, finally, hope, it becomes clear that their healing process is somehow the nation's healing process, too.
Where: Muse Arts Warehouse, 703D Louisville Road
When: At 2, 5 and 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11
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