In their opening introduction at TIFF of their film Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, filmmakers David Belton and Bjørn Johnson successfully defend why they chose to make this new feature documentary around the devastating attacks on New York City, and their fresh take is indeed just just that – not unlike anything seen before. Deeply personal, devastating and touching, it is as hard hitting as the first glimpse of the horrific live footage that was transmitted all over the world on that fateful Tuesday morning exactly twenty years ago.
The set-up is simple, a group of survivors of the 9/11 attacks tell their story in a purpose-built, self operated memory box. The film features footage recorded a short while after the attacks – mostly in 2002, just months later. The box was set up by artist Ruth Sergel and survivors were invited into the booth to be recorded on video, sharing their thoughts and recollections down the camera lens inside the installation in the city. The videos had not been seen publicly, until now.
Filmmakers David Belton and Bjørn Johnson utilise news footage – some seen before, some not – to visualise the recollections of their subject matter, often interspersing old photographs of them and those they’ve lost, as well as reels of home footage and personal imagery. It makes for a harrowing but entirely engrossing watch, but the two filmmakers save the kicker until well after the first hour – re-introducing the survivors in newly-shot footage film, captured in a new ‘Memory Box’ nearly twenty years on. It is here where the film is its most effective and emotional, the device vaguely reminiscent of Michael Apted’s ’21 Up’ etc. series. It is interesting to hear the thoughts of those involved all these years on, particularly on such an anniversary as the day in which I write and publish this.
At a time when politically America is at such a divide than ever before in recent memory, an uplifting message lies beneath the testimonies of this small group of Americans who were pulled together in the face of devastation.
If there is one documentary you watch on the anniversary of this national, and indeed international tragedy, make it it this one. Memory Box: Memories of 9/11 is thought-provoking and emotionally charged, but most of all, it has an underlying message of hope. Made for Peacock stateside [where it is available to stream now], this is unmissable documentary television.
Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11 was reviewed at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
Memory Box: Memories of 9/11
Deeply personal, David Belton and Bjørn Johnson’s film is skilfully crafted, tightly edited and wonderfully presented. Devastating, almost unwatchable in places, but absolutely extremely important documentary filmmaking.