Just like everyone who was around in 1963 remembers where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated, everyone who was around in 2001 remembers the terrorist attacks of September 11th of that year, and likely what they were doing when they heard as well. It was too much to process at the time, and indeed you could argue many still have not processed what it signified as well as the implications of such a tragedy, but one artist in 2001 had an idea, Ruth Sergel was that artist, and she decided to set up a project that would double as art piece and record of witnesses' feelings about that fateful day. She built a wooden box as a recording booth, and took it to the locations of where the attacks happened, then got witnesses to simply talk.
It's an idea that seems almost childishly basic, but it turns out to be inspired for the purposes of bringing the focus on to the ordinary folks who had their lives stopped in their tracks on the day itself, and were willing to discuss their experiences, though perhaps discuss was not the right word as there was, largely, nobody but themselves in the box with them. In this assembly of some of the clips, directors David Belton and Bjorn Johnson took their cue from Michael Apted's 7 Up series, not only a classic of the form but a cast iron format for observing how the passing of time changes us as fresh horrors are thrown up, yet also new benefits and blessings that remind us life is not all grim, there are reasons for us to carry on even in the most trying of circumstances. This does risk seeming banal in that manner.
Yet somehow, when you are listening to the testimonies, banality is not in your thoughts, because these people witnessed the worst humanity can do to ourselves and came out the other side holding on to a positive feeling that if they were to give into the hatred, not only would it ruin their lives for good, but it would be precisely what the terrorists would have wanted. There are a select few here who would be good enough subjects for entire, feature length documentaries themselves, such as the Muslim architect who had two motives for feeling her heart sink when the planes hit the World Trade Center in New York City. First, because of the terrible loss of life, and second, once it got out the killers were Islamic extremists, that she would have to spend an awfully long time justifying herself and the religion of her people to persuade Christian America it was a minority who took to terrorism.
There are news clips of a march against a proposed mosque near the WTC site, intended as an act of peace and conciliation, that lead into a musing that the United States was never so united as they were on the day four planes were used to create mayhem, and two decades later it's difficult to see how it became so divided. There was a feeling of the documentary both looking back to the atrocity, yet also looking forward to an uncertain future where it seems extremists are being cultivated across the globe, not only in America, which could leave the viewer in a state of pessimism. But then you watch the footage of the survivors of the WTC and Pentagon attacks, and you can understand they have optimism thanks to the fact they did get through the worst time of their lives and decided to use their time to be more productive, to spread kindness and support, and generally try to make the world a better place. The two booths were given over to the interviewees to write on the walls, and they all left a message of hope, which tells you a lot. It's an unadorned production, this film, reliant on stock footage, but if it had any power it was in those survivors, of all walks of life, who prevailed.
['Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11' is streaming on NOW TV ahead of the BAFTA TV Awards]