Born after the terror attacks, a generation of young people wonders – What happened on 9/11? Why did it happen? What was its impact on our country and the world? Exploring these and other questions in a kid-friendly way, HBO Family’s latest documentary is an introduction to the events of 9/11. What Happened on September 11 is directed and produced by Emmy-winner Amy Schatz (HBO’s Song of Parkland, The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm and An Apology to Elephants) in collaboration with the 9/11 Tribute Museum.
What Happened on September 11 provides a sensitive and informative account of the events of 9/11 for a young audience. Designed in response to children’s questions about the attacks, the film features kids in conversation with survivors and family members, historical segments, and classroom scenes exploring 9/11 through artwork and poetry. The short documentary follows students from Secaucus Middle School on a class trip to the 9/11 Tribute Museum in Lower Manhattan, where they hear personal accounts from Tribute School Group Guides Stephen Kern, who worked on the 62nd floor of the North Tower and recalls the evacuation and buildings collapse, and Matthew Crawford, whose father was a firefighter who died in the South Tower. Back in the classroom, the students create art projects and write poems about 9/11, an assignment their teachers Melissa Heintjes and Doug Depice give as part of a unique interdisciplinary approach to teaching 9/11, helping kids make an “emotional connection to history.”
Through archival photos and footage, the film includes a sidebar on the history and significance of the World Trade Center and lower Manhattan, along with a short discussion of the rise of Al-Qaeda to address kids’ questions about the attackers’ motivations. “It’s a difficult lesson to teach,” admits Jennifer Suri, Assistant Principal of Social Studies at Stuyvesant High School, who is Muslim. She notes the importance of emphasizing that the motivations of the terrorists are not a part of Islam.
The special also touches on the other events of 9/11 – the third plane flown into the Pentagon and a fourth that crashed in a Pennsylvania field. It also describes the rescue and clean-up efforts at the World Trade Center, which took nine months to clear.
The film closes with a bright spot in the recovery — when a tree was found buried under the rubble. After being moved to a nursery, the tree grew to 30 feet and was finally brought back to Ground Zero in December 2010. Visiting the “Survivor Tree,” seen in the film covered in flowers at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza, the children take away a powerful lesson from the last living thing pulled from the site. To one student, the tree “goes to show that through bad days, no matter how bad it gets, that shouldn’t make you scared to keep living your life.”
For over a decade, the 9/11 Tribute Museum has worked with teachers and students to develop resources to facilitate a deeper understanding of the events of September 11, 2001. Highlighting first person accounts, the museum has over 900 volunteers from the 9/11 community, including family members, survivors, and first responders, who share their experiences of that day with visitors from around the world, illustrating the history and how the world has changed. Inspired by the film, the 9/11 Tribute Museum created teaching resource materials available for free at https://911tributemuseum.org/what-happened-on-september-11-hbo-documentary.
What Happened on September 11 was directed and produced by Amy Schatz; edited by Tom Patterson; producers, Katy Garfield and Sascha Weiss; director of photography, Alex Rappoport; music composed by Keith Kenniff. For HBO: executive producers, Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller.