Here's an absolute can't-miss from this year's Maryland Film Festival.
This astonishing documentary—part Greek tragedy and part absurdist comedy—takes a look at the 16 acres in lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center once stood. (“The most valuable 16 acres on earth,” as one observer describes them.)
Consider that space, if you will. Even under the best of circumstances, developing such priceless real estate in Manhattan would be quagmire of zoning regulations and various financial and political agendas. But when you consider that the space didn’t just have to be big and profitable and safe from future terrorist attacks—it also had to essentially heal a nation, you can imagine the depth of conflict. “It’s not just a commercial site,” says Philip Nobel, the architect and critic who serves as a priceless voice of perspective and insight in the film. “It [has to be] a symbol of defiant renewal and healing.”
Oh, is that all.
So what we’re left with is, basically, a fiasco. And that’s what the film gives us a front row seat to.
For starters, there’s Larry Silverstein, the developer who had fulfilled a lifelong dream of buying that property a mere six weeks before 9/11. Silverstein doesn’t come across as unusually craven—he lost employees that day and his grief feels genuinely heartfelt—but he is a businessman, with a businessman’s expected concerns. (His most creative trick is trying to convince the insurance company that 9/11 was two separate catastrophic events, and therefore, he’s owned twice the settlement. Okay, maybe that is a bit craven.)
There are gigantic town hall meetings, to get the feedback from the people of New York. There are international design competitions, egos, grandstanding, name-calling, photo-ops.
The politicians, in particular, come across as shamelessly opportunistic.
Every time there’s a bit of public restlessness over the delay in the construction, then-Governor George Pataki would don a hard hat and have a new naming ceremony or release a dove or, in one so-absurd-you-couldn’t-make-it-up piece of political theater, install a cornerstone on a spot where, it was later decided, the new towers could not possibly be built. Also? “Towers don’t have cornerstones,” Noble offers, ironically.
(At some point, once the project is moved elsewhere, the cornerstone is literally removed from the premises in the dark of night.)
Well! I’ve given away too much already. The film really needs to be seen to be believed. (I spent most of 16 Acres slapping my forehead in disbelief. )It’s a monument to the perils of bureaucracy, but also to the unprecedented complexity of this 16 acres of consecrated space.
To filmmaker Richard Hankin’s credit, 16 Acres also has some extraordinarily moving scenes—especially those focusing on the sister of a fireman who lost his life in 9/11 and her pilgrimage to the dedication of the site’s memorial. (Even that memorial, sacred and beautiful as it is, was wrought with political infighting.)
Oh, in case you were wondering, the new One World Trade Center is apparently almost complete. It will be the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
For a complete festival schedule, go here.