On September 10, 2011, almost 10 years to the day after the worst attack in our nation's history, 'New York Says Thank You' will screen for viewers across the country. However, this isn't your typical 9/11 documentary -- there are no images of the World Trade Center burning or shots of individuals running for cover, nor are there clips showing the collapse of the Twin Towers. This is a 9/11 documentary that's not about 9/11.
"That's the hardest thing, it gets slotted into the 9/11 [category]. But the story isn't really about 9/11, it's about 9/12. It's really more about compassion than tragedy," explains director, Scott Rettberg.
That's not to say that 'New York Says Thank You' skips over 9/11 entirely. In fact, the film starts off in a familiar place: with FDNY members and ordinary New Yorkers briefly discussing their experience on that fateful day, followed by audio of 9/11 first responders over walkie-talkies. The film then jumps to, of all places, Little Sioux, IA, where a group of people are building a chapel.
Before we go any further, some background first: 'New York Says Thank You' focuses on a foundation of the same name. Founded by Jeff Parness in 2003, the group looks to give back to a country that was there for NYC in its most desperate time of need.
The idea was originally conceived by Parness' son, Evan, who, after hearing about the devastating California wildfires in 2003, suggested donating his old toys to those who had lost their homes. Soon after, Jeff found himself driving cross-country in a U-Haul to deliver relief items. On the side of the truck was a banner that read, NEW YORK SAYS THANK YOU.
"It was our way of making a statement that, while two years had passed since the World Trade Center terror attack, New Yorkers had not forgotten the love and support we received from across America in the days, weeks, and months following 9/11," Parness states on the foundation's website.
After the first trip, Parness turned his son's suggestion into an annual outing: Each year, on the anniversary of 9/11, Parness would travel with volunteers from New York City to help rebuild communities that had been destroyed by man-made or natural disasters. Since then, the program has grown exponentially, bringing along those who volunteered the year before.
Enter Scott Rettberg. When the director first heard about the foundation in 2005, he immediately knew it was a story he had to tell.
"I got on the phone with Jeff and he told me about it, and two weeks later I'm in Indiana with a bunch of Amish people and firefighters," says Rettberg, referring to the DeGonia Springs, IN project where the foundation helped build a chapel in the wake of a tornado.
After experiencing the effort first hand, Rettberg was blown away, not only by the support system of this particular foundation, but the reaction his production crew had.
"I was emotionally moved just seeing the interaction between all these different groups of people. To fly on the plane flight back and have my crew, who can't stop talking about what they've seen ... and how amazing it was for them -- I was like, this is a story that has to be told."
In the hour-and-a-half documentary, Rettberg captures both the emotions of a community ravaged by a disaster and the effect the New York Says Thank You foundation has when they arrive to help out. But perhaps the most striking thing about the film is the therapy it provides the firefighters and other volunteers who were affected by 9/11.
"I think we captured how [a disaster] changes people and it affects their life over time, but at the same time it actually is changing those people that think they are changing others -- the firefighters are actually healing themselves," says Rettberg.
After five years of shooting, Rettberg and his editor took on the exhaustive task of piecing 250 hours of footage together. A year later, they came out with a finished film, which told the story through a very unique structure. By focusing on one particular build during the movie (the Little Sioux, IA project in 2009), Rettberg was able to flash back to show when and where the different groups of people had joined the foundation, whether it be from previous builds or New York City.
'New York Says Thank You' premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival. The movie is now finally screening for a wide audience, both in theaters and this weekend on FOX, just in time for an anniversary where people will spend the day reflecting and remembering loved ones. It's perhaps fitting then, that this particular documentary couldn't have been put together without the support and help from others (for example, Rettberg barely had to pay for the editing facility in Dallas where they put it together).
"This film wouldn't be possible without the amount of people that came together to make it happen. So many people have donated their week or whatever their time is to make this film," says Rettberg. "[Anyone] that could throw in to make this film happen, did. So it's really this collage of everyone in America making this film."