(Canada, 88 min.)
Dir. Elizabeth St. Philip
Where were you when 9/11 happened? This question is one that virtually everyone alive on the fateful day of September 11, 2001 can answer. They can recall where they were when they learned about the two planes that flew into the World Trade Centre. They can probably describe spending the rest of the morning being glued to the television screen with gut-wrenching awe as they watched along with the world as the Twin Towers collapsed and life changed in an instant. For the kids of Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, however, the entire world shared the experience with them.
9/11 Kids, directed by Elizabeth St. Philip and produced by Steve Gamester, checks in on the students of Emma E. Booker who were reading The Pet Goat with President George W. Bush when he received news of the attack. The iconic footage of Bush sweating it out during the reading lesson remains powerful nearly twenty years later. 9/11 Kids looks at history anew to experience America’s collective loss of innocence through the eyes of the children who embodied it in iconic images as the President contemplated the nation’s future while letting the kids finish their story. It’s a thoughtful study of America then and now, and an unexpected take on the American dream. The stories suggest that hope for many Americans vanished with the towers as 9/11 transformed the nation.
The film features six students from the class at Emma E. Booker, along with their teacher Kay Daniels. The students recall the excitement of getting ready to meet the President. There are stories of giddiness and anxiety as the kids from the mostly low income and predominantly African-American school prepared for the honour. Daniels, moreover, explains how Bush came to the school to promote his education program, No Child Left Behind. She notes the rigorous reading exercises that grilled the nuances of language into the kids’ heads, which one sees in the archival footage from the classroom that preceded the fateful moment with The Pet Goat.
St. Philip unpacks the moments in which Bush considers the initial reports and largely remaining cool under pressure. The film thankfully doesn’t reappraise Bush as a stoic hero (especially given what came after 9/11), but St. Philip doesn’t shortchange the President for keeping calm in a situation nobody thought he could handle. Even if one has seen these images before in films like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, one has never seen them quite like this. The recollections from Daniels and the students capture the change in the atmosphere the occurred when Bush got the news. “I thought he had to pee,” quips one Emma E. Booker alumnus reflecting on the tense moment.
The doc flash-forwards to learn how these students grew up in the shadow of 9/11. Natalia Pinkney Jones, for example, displays a tirelessly energetic attitude and a wig collection that rivals that of Moira Rose. She recounts with wide-eyed, bouncy wonder how she feels she is destined for greatness. Taking St. Philip into her home to observe her work as a babysitter and the struggles she faces in realizing her potential. It’s easy to see why Jones ultimately captures the film’s attention. She loves the camera and the camera loves her, capturing moments of heartache as she speaks of her brother who was victimized by racial profiling and images of incredible catharsis as she releases her pain in church.
Tyler Radkey becomes the other key figure of the six characters in 9/11 Kids. The film learns of his experience falling into a string of criminal behaviour and fighting for an honest living after seeing one mugshot too many appear online. St. Philips follows Radkey throughout his ordeal as he fights some drug charges and faces jail time. He’s a product of the inequalities to which the film’s surrogate narrator, radio personality “Uncle” Ronnie Phelps, speaks in the footage the bridges the students’ stories.
While Jones and Radkey struggle, their former classmate Dinasty Brown thrives as a social media entrepreneur who began a successful business shortly after graduating high school. Her driven personality and self-starter attitude makes her a kindred spirit for Jones, but she displays vastly differently material results as she shows St. Philips her shiny car and array of bling. How two students from the same small class can see vastly different outcomes despite their shared entrepreneurial spirit gives pause for reflection. Similarly, the story of Megan Diaz shows incredible strength as she reveals how violence transformed her life, yet she perseveres as a motivational speaker. Her story could have easily been that of anyone else in the class as the interviews reflect upon the fates they encountered.
Two stories draw upon the consequences of 9/11 more explicitly. La’Damien Smith proudly explains that he joined the military after seeing the devastating effects of terrorism on the nation. Lazaro Dubrocq, the son of Cuban immigrants, speaks to the culture of xenophobia that exploded amid post-9/11 paranoia and evolved as mainstream American sought faces of different colours to brand as the enemy other. He notes, somewhat poignantly, that the ripple effect of 9/11 means that he and his parents would not be Americans today had they sought to better their situation in the age of Trump. These stories collectively speak to a generation raised in a culture of fear and white supremacist “patriotism.”
One wishes that 9/11 Kids tackled the implications of September 11th more substantially outside of the relatively under-used storylines of Smith and Dubrocq. Similarly, an audience looking to wrestle with speculation that The Pet Goat was merely a premeditated photo op for Bush won’t find any hints that the President knew of the attacks to come. There are no conspiracy theories here, just stories of innocence lost amid compelling and slickly shot human stories. However, if the doc leaves something to be desired as a study on the day of September 11, 2001, there’s no mistaking St. Philips’ ability to capture disparate paths that people may take from a shared point of origin. By charting the growth of the students who stood with America on that fateful day, 9/11 Kids provocatively illustrates the influence of race, class, and privilege on a person’s pursuit of the freedoms and liberties the USA supposedly promises its people.
9/11 Kids premieres on CBC Gem on April 23 at 8:30 pm at part of the Hot Docs at Home series. Other films in the series include Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art with additional titles released weekly through May.
9/11 Kids screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.