Contextualizing Terror: Why 102 Minutes That Changed America's Footage is Morally Acceptable
Footage from 9/11 is hard to watch, but it is historically important.
This is an essay that I wrote for a film class in high school last year about the History documentary 102 Minutes that Changed America. The essay as a whole summarizes my opinions on the importance of archival footage, documentary filmmaking, historical preservation and education, and filmmaking as a medium. Unfortunately, 102 Minutes is a rare documentary and its DVD is currently out of print. There are still DVDs available on Amazon if you're curious about the documentary, but I hope that someday the documentary will be accessible for a wide audience again.
102 Minutes That Changed America is a unique documentary in that it takes place virtually in real-time. This allows the viewer not only to see what it felt like watching the events of September 11, 2001, unfold in front of them, but also to experience the chaotic energy of seeing two of the tallest buildings in the world collapse. In order to capture the terror of the citizens of New York, footage from over one hundred people was collected and edited together, which means that horrifying footage of people jumping from the towers and firefighters entering the burning buildings was included in the mix. If footage like that wasn’t included in a documentary like this, it would be disingenuous to the event and how people experienced it as a whole. Pretending like there were no shocking or disturbing scenes that occurred during 9/11 is not only grossly inaccurate, it’s disgraceful to those who survived and experienced the event firsthand. Take out the footage of the disturbing events and you lose the scope of how horrifying and terrible this event was.
Including footage of people in shock and making in-the-moment decisions about how they’re going to escape the burning towers isn’t morally corrupt. If the director and editors of the film decided to glorify the footage and make it more dramatic than it really was or somehow twist it into an optimistic light, then it would be morally wrong. However, the filmmakers deliberately made the choice to only insert an ambient soundtrack amongst the audio and visuals of the actual event. Because of this, it feels like the filmmakers are treating the event with respect. They’re not inserting the footage to shock the viewer or dramatize what happened that day or to make a statement about the people who did what they did on that day. They are inserting that footage to give context to the event as a whole.
If anything is morally questionable here, it’s the fact that so many people filmed the events as they happened. It could be argued that those who filmed the events didn’t respect the boundaries and emotions of those involved, those who were worried about their families, or those who were concerned about the people involved in general. Reporters, desperate to find a story, try interviewing those who are grieving or who have just escaped from the towers, which could also be viewed as a breach of boundaries by certain people. However, at the same time, now that almost everyone has a camera in their pocket, it’s human nature to record what we don’t understand. The people who recorded the footage probably wanted to remember the event as accurately as possible to tell a fully-realized account of what happened. Maybe they assumed the footage would be important in the future, and if that was their thought process, they were absolutely right. Footage like that compiled for the History documentary 102 Minutes That Changed America is important in understanding the chaos, terror, and confusion people felt while experiencing 9/11 firsthand. When used correctly, like the filmmakers of this documentary did, it is as far from morally repugnant as possible.