“16 ACRES”— A New Documentary About the World Trade Center

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“16 Acres”

A New Documentary About the World Trade Center

Amos Lassen

“16 Acres” is a new documentary that is scheduled to be released on May 21, 2014, the date of the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum at The World Trade Center site. The museum has been

“The most architecturally, politically, and emotionally complex construction project in recent American history”. There has been controversy from the very beginning and the struggle to develop these 16 acres of land has taken place over 12 years, has involved nineteen governmental agencies and over twenty billion dollars. There have problems with engineering challenges, politicians, developers, architects, insurers, local residents and relatives of victims of 9/11.

This film looks at the inside story of how and why this historic project got built. We see the dramatic tension that came about as a result of noble intention and the desire of everyone who wanted to get it “right”. The film is an attempt to answer the question, “What’s the real story behind why it’s taken so long to rebuild?” To the surprise of the writer/producer Matt Kapp, no books, TV shows or documentaries had attempted to answer that question. Few Americans, even New Yorkers, know much about what has really gone on behind the scenes. As it seems with all great urban projects, a small group of powerful people dictates the outcome. Who are they and what motivates them?

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The original plan was to tell the story as a first person narrative and told by the key players. Director Richard Hankin says that since “Many of them are true New York characters, and in many ways it’s a quintessentially New York story”. 

Exclusive access to the World Trade Center site and extensive archival research allowed the filmmakers to colorfully and precisely illustrate and guide the narrative without traditional narration. We see never-before-seen footage, photographs, and architectural renderings and these create an unprecedented historical visual experience of the rebuilding effort. The hope is that this film will be seen as the definitive account of New York’s struggle to rebuild the World Trade Center. 

(The filmmakers have also produced an enhanced, interactive e-book companion to the film, which will be available on iTunes May 15th. “16 ACRES +: Companion to the Acclaimed Documentary About the Struggle to Rebuild Ground Zero” is the first of its kind to be released in conjunction with a documentary, includes slide shows, architectural renderings, video extras, animation, and a narrative that provides background and context”.

Watching the film will bring up memories of that terrible day. The film opens with Bob Dylan singing “Everything Is Broken”. From here director Hankin constructs a polished, appealing surface atop a story of enormous sadness, which was made worse by the reaction of the public to what was going on.

The families of 9/11 victims had, and have, a right to see that the site properly honors their lost loved ones, and often-reviled developer Larry Silverstein had a legitimate interest in rebuilding commercial properties in Lower Manhattan, especially considering the tens of millions a month he had to pay the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey whether there were buildings on the site or not.

The bureaucracy is not toned down and neither is the fact that the enterprise was a mess of infighting. The politicians also get what is coming to them. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared shortly after 9/11 that the whole of the WTC site should be considered sacred ground, knowing full well it was an unworkable-bordering-on-absurd idea. Governor George Pataki, whose appearance in the film demonstrates a disconnect of epic proportions, presided over multiple groundbreakings and one ridiculous dedication of a cornerstone (such office towers don’t have cornerstones, someone points out), while making sure the project went as slowly or quickly as was politically expedient for him. Director Hankin and his editing allow people to bury themselves. But not everyone is unsympathetic. “Rosaleen Tallon, whose firefighter brother died in the rescue efforts, is a likable representative of all who lost family in the attack, even if she sometimes seems blinkered to the realities of devoting so much of the world’s most valuable real estate to commemorating the dead. Architectural designer Daniel Libeskind, and David Childs, the architect of the erstwhile “Freedom Tower” (a name Pataki gave the building without consulting anyone, and which has since been erased), are sad examples of the kinds of public artists whose ideas are gradually diminished into parody by too much public input. Likewise Michael Arad, the Israeli-born city architect who won the competition for design of the WTC memorial; the political nitpicking at his concept recalls Maya Lin and her design of the Vietnam memorial in Washington”.

The film raises questions as to whether anything is ever going to be accomplished at Ground Zero. The movie seems to prefer to take the attitude that the voices trying to be heard over the political realities of reconstructing Lower Manhattan are somehow in keeping with the character of New York City, but New York just does not need this now.  Some have called it a comedy of errors but it is more of a tragedy than anything else. Indeed, Dylan’s “Everything is Broken” might just be the best way to describe the entire fiasco.

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