(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.