9/11 currently lies on the cusp between current event and history.
Those of us who lived through it or adjacent to it, even if we were not directly impacted by it, may be slightly befuddled by documentaries and musicals casting the events of that day into a “feel good” molding.
But I am a professor, and each September brings me not only new commemorations of 9/11 but also a new crop of Freshman. The current group was either not yet born when the Towers fell or were so young as to have no memory of their cascading to the ground except for what has been preserved by YouTube and social media. For them, I wonder, is a documentary about 9/11 materially different from one about World War II? Does a love story set against the backdrop of Pearl Harbor feel cheap and exploitative to them?
You Are Here chronicles the events of 9/11 as experienced by passengers and crew who were flying that day and ended up grounded–and stranded–in Gander, Newfoundland. With one huge caveat, it is both inspiring and entertaining. It is the story not of a few exceptional individuals but of a township, a way of life, a philosophy, and how those who lived in Gander fought back the darkness by welcoming strangers.
My caveat is this: the last half hour or so of You Are Here morphs into an infomercial for the play Come From Away. I suppose the films subtitle ought to be a sufficient warning that its reason for being is more commercial than informative, but there is something nevertheless grating about the take home for such a chronicle being, hey, at long last we finally have a great Canadian stage musical!
When You Are Here is telling the story that inspired Come From Away it is far more gripping than when it is following the participants to Broadway to see their likenesses sing their experiences on stage. The film is sometimes inspiring and always dramatic, but it is rarely introspective. Absent its own willingness to explore its strange experiences, the film flirts with leaving the impression that it was not those experiences but rather the musical they inspired that is important. ‘
Yet even despite the fumbling segue from documentary to “making of” film, the documentary has undeniable appeal. It is heartening to be reminded that within even the most traumatic events humans are capable of great generosity, both spiritually and materially.
To cite one small but telling example, veterinary and airport personnel in Gander refused orders to stay away from the parked planes — there was fear that some might have delayed explosives in luggage compartments — in order to rescue animals that had been abandoned during emergency exits from the vehicles.
It is tempting to draw parallels between the treatment of these stranded travelers and those at makeshift detention centers in the United States. When one American praises the Canadians for treating the strangers so hospitably, even she balks when her hosts demure that Americans “would do the same” for them. No, she insists, when she hears a knock on the door in the middle of an emergency, she makes sure that door is locked against intruders.
There are, admittedly, important differences between temporarily stranded travelers and aspiring immigrants. The film doesn’t deny that. It’s just that it focuses on the virtues of hospitality, and in so doing reminds us that this virtues is something that communities and nations used to pride themselves in. It’s strange to talk of a 9/11 documentary making one nostalgic, but this one does. It does not makes us fondly remember those days, but it might prompt some to say “those were the days.”
Can we recapture some of the spirit of other ages and smaller places that used to — and still can — inspire us?
You Are Here: A Come From Away story will play at select theaters nationwide on September 11, 2019. Check Fathom Events for local listings.