Surviving 9/11 is a moving study of trauma that doesn’t offer easy answers

Surviving 9/11 is a moving study of trauma that doesn’t offer easy answers
Thirteen survivors of the 2001 terror attacks share their stories in this well-judged documentary from Bafta-winning filmmaker Arthur Cary

There is no “right” way of processing the terrorist attack that took place on 9 September 2001. Maybe there’s no way of processing it at all. The destruction of the Twin Towers was a monumental act of terror, one that shook the very fabric of western society. It bisected our history into before and after.

Even with 20 years between that moment and the present day, 9/11 remains a raw and distressing wound. Surviving 9/11, a 90-minute documentary airing on BBC Two, cannot hope to tackle the metastasising mess that is its global social and political legacy. Fortunately, it doesn’t try to. Instead, it focuses on the human element; the intimate, heartrending recollections of those who, by sheer chance, made it out alive.

The 13 interviewees featured in the documentary have all lived with their trauma in different ways. We see the son of a woman who suffered terrible, life-threatening burns describe his still-raw hatred of Osama bin Laden – he expresses his desire to torture him. The mountains of grief, sorrow, anger and confusion are compacted into an ice pick-sharp hatred of one man (the only mention of bin Laden in the entire documentary). We see the brother of a British man who died in the towers who is obsessed with finding the “truth” of his sibling’s death. There are stacks of conspiracy theorist books piled high in his house. We see an artist who worked in a studio in the towers on 9/11 who left the country and moved back to Britain, where she has slowly repainted the same piece that was destroyed in the attacks. It’s a beautiful view of New York City from up high – a sight, she says, that no longer exists.

Surviving 9/11  is profoundly moving throughout, without having to try very hard at it; testimony from the survivors is delivered plainly and sincerely. These are stories that the interviewees have likely had to recall, with great pain, many times. The filmmaking is extremely unshowy, wisely omitting a voiceover and cross-cutting effectively between multiple interviewees at a time. Sombre violin music is perhaps unnecessary, but used subtly enough as to avoid being crass. Filmmaker Arthur Cary has a good innate feel for which interviewees to spend the most time with, stringing together a narrative in a way that doesn’t feel forced.

Documentaries are often thought of as vehicles for information, a form with which to educate and explain. Surviving 9/11 is not that. It explains very little about terrorism, or Al-Qaeda, or any of the bigger picture. It doesn’t try and see past the rubble, the smoke and the all-consuming human horror of it all. But there is value in what it’s doing to acknowledge and remember. It offers only what is true, even if there are no answers in sight.