EXCLUSIVE: Amid a wave of programming to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11, MSNBC Films and Peacock have slated the documentary feature Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, which revisits eyewitness accounts of that day that were captured as part of an artist’s project.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, artist Ruth Sergel created a plywood video booth to record personal video testimonies of eyewitnesses from New York, Washington and Shanksville, PA. The result was 525 uninterrupted or edited personal accounts, drawn largely in 2002. The project uses that footage and revisits those who gave that testimony, as they return to the booth to share their memories and experiences of the past two decades.
The Yard 44 and NBC News Studios production is from filmmakers David Belton and Bjørn Johnson, based in the UK, and will have its TV debut on MSNBC, without commercials, and Peacock at 10 PM ET on Sept. 8. Re-showings are scheduled for Sept. 11 and 12, with streaming on demand for free on Peacock. The project is the first collaboration between MSNBC Films, Peacock and NBC News Studios.
Johnson said that he wanted for years to do a project on 9/11 when he discovered Sergel’s project, which was seen on the internet but hasn’t received a huge amount of attention.
“People were allowed into this confessional space, safe space of the booth to emote their feelings and how they felt that day. It kind of just spoke to me, and I just saw the power of what I was watching, and not the individual but the collective story,” Johnson told Deadline.
“It was a lightbulb moment. I said, ‘These people, their voices need to be heard because they haven’t,” he said. “They’ve been buried for 19 years, going on 20, and they need to have a platform.”
The stories were still available on certain websites, but “they are all just kind of these individual voices,” Belton said.
“It sort of became really clear that what hadn’t been told was the collective, how could you collectively bring these voices together to tell a story, not just of the day but something bigger, about how you deal with grief, how you deal with trauma,” he said. “So in a sense we saw the potential for this archive was to refashion it and use it in a completely different way, and make something that was greater than the sum of its parts.”
Johnson said that he watched 150 hours of footage over a period of three months.
Belton said, “What we often found was they wanted to tell a story but they usually had a deeper reason for going in, and they didn’t necessarily know that that is what they were going into the booth for. You suddenly found that if you sort of brushed away the narrative a bit, you got into the emotional heart of they had gone into the booth. It could be guilt, it could be trauma, it could be loss, it could be joy, it could be euphoria. Bewilderment. It could be religion. … We started listening and we go, ‘Those are the people to go for, because they are speaking to a universal theme.'”
Johnson added, “This is not a film about what people saw that day, it is a film about what people felt.”
More than 120 people were recontacted to share their perspectives. Among those who participated: A choreographer, Donald Byrd, who now lives in Seattle, who lived a few blocks from the World Trade Center. On 9/11, he witnesses people jumping to their deaths from the towers. Johnson said, “He talks about the power of memory and why he was chosen to see them, and what he was going to do with the responsibility of having witnessed that. And what he did with it is he created a dance. The dance was to show what he experienced but the idea of these people being at peace, and that was beautiful for me.”
Another participant, Mary Adams, a social worker who worked with young women and girls who had had traumatic experiences in their lives. She recalled returning to work two weeks after the death of her brother, and initially being a bit surprised that the girls don’t surround her to console her when she got back. Belton said, “She realizes it’s because all of these girls have lost somebody in their lives. They were really in a horrendous situation. So losing a brother, as she says, on a bright Tuesday morning, there is nothing unusual about that. And she learned then that this extraordinary empathy that she got from these girls that just didn’t try sort of try and ‘rescue’ her, didn’t try and help her out, they just sort of accepted her, became part of her healing.”
Another participant talked in 2002 of being unable to talk about what had happened to friends and family, but in her video from this year said that changed with a visit to the memorial at the World Trade Center site. “All of those names around it — it is just a transformative experience. I was then so much more at peace at sharing my feelings with my kids,” she said.
Rod Aissa, executive vice president of unscripted, documentary and lifestyle at NBC Entertainment, said that “what drew us at Peacock to it was the unique way of revisiting 9/11 in a way that was unexpected. …I felt that was so much more poignant than just taking a historical look, in a place that is right in the emotional center that touches us all if we were there that day or not.”
Liz Cole, the president of NBC News Studios and executive producer of Dateline, said that when they launched the studio unit last year, one of the first things they set out to do was to find a project to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary. “To me it’s the fact that so many of these stories have not been heard before, and there is also a kind of wonderful randomness to the people who walked into the booth. It was an open call — come in and tell your stories.” Some of the people who shared their stories in the booth also encountered each other by chance on 9/11.
Amanda Spain, vice president of longform acquisitions at MSNBC, said that the project also has a resilient message. “Now we’re in a similar situation 20 years later dealing with the pandemic and the insurrection and George Floyd’s murder,” she said. “We’ve experienced this collective trauma again. So it’s amazing that you can reflect 20 years ago and now, and really realize that we survive and sometimes thrive, after so much immense tragedy.”
Memory Box is produced by Hugo Godwin for Yard44 and Elizabeth Fischer for NBC News Studios.
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