The Decisive Moment

On September 11, 2001, Jules Naudet, a relatively unknown documentary filmmaker, captured the instant the world changed.



W hen the World Trade Center’s north tower began falling around him the morning of September 11, 2001, Jules Naudet asked himself, for the first time in his life, “Where is God?” The question entered his mind as he sprinted frantically down Church Street surrounded by flying shards and yelling firefighters.

The young, French-born filmmaker had started the day expecting to film the firefighters of Engine 7, Ladder Company 1, doing their job. But after being thrust into the dark maelstrom of the unimaginable, the firefighters returned to their barracks that afternoon considerably aged and no doubt also asking themselves about the presence of God. Jules’s state of mind can be seen in a moment in the film that shows him, then twenty-eight, weaving into the firehouse, covered in ash, his eyes chalky, red and teary from witnessing and surviving the terrors of that day.

From that moment Jules, with his older brother, Gédéon, and firefighter James Hanlon, embarked on a new mission. What started as a documentary about a young probationary firefighter—a “probie”—going through his early paces became a monumental recording about firefighters who are willing to dive into hell if that’s what it takes to save somebody.

In the years that followed, as the filmmakers finished their overpowering film, titled simply 9/11, the Naudet brothers continued asking themselves about the nature of existence and the meaning of religious impulses. Those questions and others ignited by the tragedy led them to their next film, In God’s Name.

 

 

Ten Years Ago

Jules Naudet does not mind sorting through these memories today as he sits on the back porch of his house in the thick woods of North Stamford. Tall and bespectacled, he has thick black hair and the rapid, energetic conversational style of his native Paris. He has been a U.S. citizen since 1998, but his accent recalls his homeland, as do the chilled bottle of rosé on the table and the ever-present cigarette at hand.

In Stamford Jules, with his Brooklyn-born wife, Jacqueline, and two kids, has found a perfect peace in a battered old house. It was built in 1786, which he calls “pyramid time” for America. Thanks to public showings of In God’s Name, he has become a noted member of the Stamford community. “This is home,” he says with an easy smile. “I love it here.”

Whether it was God or fate, something put him on a path that is continuing to unfold. Before that fateful morning, Jules and Gédéon, graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, had made one other documentary, a film about prizefighters in Spanish Harlem. Their original intention in hanging out in that lower Manhattan firehouse was to discover something else about New York life. The firefighters had allowed the brothers into their world, but up to that day were not yet ready to open up and talk to them.

That clear and sunny morning of September 11, the Naudet brothers watched the firefighters answer a routine call about a gas leak. Jules, then a relative novice with the camera, hearing a roar in the sky, looked up to see an American Airlines jet flying too low and too fast. He instinctively swung the camera to follow the plane’s path into the north tower.

The firefighters instantly headed for the World Trade Center. Jules went with them, and Captain Joseph Pfeifer barked at him to never leave his side. “I ended up filming for almost two and a half hours in the lobby of the World Trade Center,” Jules recalls in his deep, clipped voice, “until the south tower collapsed and trapped us in the north tower.”

Jules avoided shooting the worst carnage of falling bodies. What he did capture, however, and to overpowering effect, was the look on firefighters’ faces as they suited up, strapped on lengths of hose and oxygen tanks, and prepared to climb eighty floors to rescue stranded people and put out the fire.

Even when the south tower fell, the firefighters simply did not know what was happening. As they hustled up an escalator, they were engulfed by a dense black cloud that completely darkened their world. The only light was the lamp on Jules’s camera. In the gloom they saw that Father Mychal Judge, who had been running alongside Jules, had died. The men picked up the chaplain’s body and carried it out.

The World Changes

“The debris,” Jules recalls, sighing. “What we found later is that half the tower fell into the lobby. All we knew was [a] loud roar that sounded like a freight train coming at [us] and everything going dark.”

When they finally walked out, they assumed that the south tower was still standing but obscured by smoke. Even after they realized the tower was gone, Captain Pfeifer’s men prepared to reenter the north tower.

Jules offers a frank look and lights up another cigarette. “At the moment we’re about to walk the hundred feet back to the tower, we hear the roar again. I remember looking up and literally seeing the tower falling on us.

“I had time to run in the five seconds I had. There was no way I could outrun whatever was falling on me. I jumped between two trucks and fell to the ground and Chief Pfeifer [fell] on top of me.”

Miraculously, all the men of Battalion 1 survived. The grim aftermath continued as they set about going through the mountains of Ground Zero. The Naudets and Hanlon spent another three months recording the work. When, just five days after the event, they asked permission to interview the men, the chief had doubts. Then it became clear the men needed to talk. “Clearly, it was helping them,” says Jules. “It had become kind of therapy.”

Although they had every reason to make an angry, impassioned film, in fact, 9/11 is notable for its deep river of humanism and compassion. The film aired on CBS on the sixth anniversary of the attacks, but some of the footage has had a curious afterlife on the Internet, where it has been pirated by conspiracy theorists who claim that the Naudets must have been in on the whole scheme, or that the footage was all doctored—notions that strike Jules as “insults” not just to the Naudets, but to the victims and their families.

With the tenth anniversary now here, it feels too soon to have gained perspective. “It’s hard to think it was ten years ago because it still seems like yesterday. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is that ten years later, 9/11 is still killing people. I see that with my friends, the firefighters and a lot of the first responders. It’s a strange feeling. September 11 killed something like 2,852 people, but starting September 12, another ten thousand might die in the future years.”

Jules has joined his firefighter friends in attending a shocking number of funerals. “We lost two this year from the firehouse,” he says. “One who was in the documentary, John O’Neil, the one who says, ‘It’s not easy being a survivor.’ He was there for the 1993 bombing and then on September 11. He died in February. Cancer. It’s cancer that is killing the guys.”

The official toll among firefighters is about 100, but a forthcoming report from a study conducted by the New York City Fire Department should reveal the full extent of casualties among first responders. “That’s really been on the minds of the firefighters. They’re always wondering, ‘Am I next?’ It’s been tough. I’m a little bit worried myself— I’m in the same category they are. Every now and then I wonder, ‘Am I next?’ Because I was there too.”

Larger Questions

Ten years ago working on the film provided a way for the brothers to process the brutal shock. But there is one thing that 9/11 does not explore: the role of religion and faith.

Jules was raised in a Paris environment of fervent intellectual debate. His father, Jean-Jacques Naudet, was a film critic for Paris Vogue and, later, the editor of American Photo. The Naudet boys were often ordered to stay up for the midnight TV broadcast of a Renoir or Kurosawa film. Religion? It was an abstract idea. Until that day.

Jules’s voice drops to a hush. “At the moment the south tower is collapsing and I’m in the north tower, I’m convinced I’m about to die. The sound, the vibrations—I knew it. This is the last moment. And the question that came up was, Why is this happening? What is the meaning of life?

“I survived it and kept thinking about it for a few years. I talked it over with my brother, who had the same questions.” He looks up, alert. “So, who better to ask than the religious leaders of the world? They should have the answers. Why are we here? What happens after death?”

The Naudets and their team were also animated by misunderstandings about religion and how religion can be hijacked and turned into a destructive force. With their film 9/11 as their calling card, they were able to get full-day interviews with the leaders of sixteen major religions, including the pope, the Dalai Lama, the rabbi of Jerusalem, and leaders of the Southern Baptist, Lutheran and Anglican churches. The two Muslim leaders they interviewed, of the Sunni and Shia sects, were very impressed that a bunch of New Yorkers, survivors of 9/11, would make such a journey of peace.

“We started this strange journey, which was a lifelong dream. We traveled around the world to incredible places and met fascinating individuals,” says Jules. “The thing that is a little bit strange is that I am not a religious person. My brother is not. All of our team were either atheists or agnostics. But I think this made us much more fair in that we didn’t have the prejudice of being one faith or another.”

By spending time with the various religious leaders, the Naudets’ perceptions changed. “If there is one thing that unites the entire work, it’s the need to believe in a higher being and in a higher purpose. For six billion people on this planet, it is that need to believe in something greater than us. For me, it was quite the revelation.”

The Journey Continues

The work did not stop there. At the invitation of Mayor Michael Pavia, Jules joined the Multicultural Council of Stamford, created last year to promote understanding among different cultures. The Multicultural Council, together with the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut, mounted My Neighbor’s Faith, a panel discussion with Stamford’s religious leaders. Like In God’s Name, the event was intended to enlighten people on pluralism in our society. “A fantastic event,” Jules enthuses. “I was surprised at how many people came. Because religion is such a difficult subject and tempers flare. But the people were engaged by it.”

Building on the success of In God’s Name, the Naudets have also embarked on their current project—interviewing all the surviving White House chiefs of staff, going back to the Johnson Administration. So far they have interviewed James Baker and Dick Cheney. Donald Rumsfeld has agreed to talk, and so have the five surviving presidents.

“I get to meet these legends!” Jules says cheerfully. “That’s why I love my job.” While the interviews have unearthed some great stories, he cannot share them with us now because he has made promises that he will not reveal anything until after the 2012 election, and he’s sticking to the deal.

In the meantime plans are also underway for a CBS broadcast of an updated 9/11 on September 11. And somewhere close in the future, he and Gédéon want to move into fiction. “Cinema has always been the big passion, but we haven’t felt mature enough to tackle that. I think we’ve come a long way and can start trying.”

Film lovers will indeed be watching the future of these two filmmaking brothers who have already come so very far.

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