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Tribeca Film Festival Opens With Controversial 9/11 Docudrama

The 5th annual Tribeca Film Festival opened on Tuesday evening with the world premiere of a controversial 9/11 docudrama. United 93, which opens nationally in theaters this Friday via Universal Pictures, is a dramatized version of the events that occurred on September 11th, 2001, when Al Qaeda terrorists took over a US airplane that was meant to crash into the White House, on the same day that other airplane hijackings attacked the Pentagon in Washington DC, and brought down New York’s World Trade Center.

The film has been sparking controversy in the United States in the past several weeks while film trailers have been shown in US theaters. Debates have raged on national television and in the press about the appropriateness of such a film and whether it was another example of Hollywood cashing in on a national tragedy that is still painful for both the families of victims who died, and the public as a whole.

That the film opened the Tribeca Film Festival, which was begun 5 years ago by actor Robert De Niro in an attempt to revitalize the downtown New York neighborhood so devastated by the attack on the World Trade Center, had its own resonance. The screening, held at the Ziegfeld Theater, New York’s largest single-screen movie theater, was abuzz with industry hotshots, journalists and eager audience members.

The mood was made solemn when Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal acknowledged the presence of about 90 relatives of the victims of the hijacked United flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field, and pointedly did not reach its ultimate target of the White House in Washington DC.

The film is directed by British director Paul Greengrass, who won acclaim a few years ago with Bloody Sunday, a horrific riot that was the violent crescendo of the long-simmering conflict between the English and the Irish in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

As audience members took their seats at the Ziegfeld Theater, each was given a pin commemorating the doomed passengers on the flight. A planned national memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania is very much on the agenda, with the Congress approving buying of the land and opening a bid to architects to submit proposals for the project.

Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro began the evening's series of introductions by referring to the film’s controversial subject matter and whether it will face audience acceptance when it is widely released this weekend. "Given our festival's founding after Sept. 11, for many of us, the story is difficult," he said. "We applaud the participation of the family members -- your participation means a lot."

Jane Rosenthal commented that while the subject matter is still painful, “the film exemplifies the highest form of the human spirit and leaves us with a new memory that is uplifting." Rosenthal then introduced the family members of the victims, to a standing ovation from the packed theater audience.

Representing those families, Gordon Felt, a relative of a Flight 93 passenger, addressed the audience and thanked Universal Pictures for donating 10% of its opening weekend gross to the fund for the planned $30 million memorial.

Director Paul Greengrass was then introduced. He humbly thanked the family members and hoped that “we have presented an accurate portrait of the courage of your loved ones.”

The film has received generally strong reviews from national film critics but no one, including its distributor, is sure how the public will respond. Is it too soon to make a film about these still horrifying events? Will the film be perceived as a callous attempt by Hollywood to cash in on a national tragedy or will the film attract strong interest from a public who remains curious about the human drama that unfolded on that eventful day.

Similar questions have been posed in the past decades about films that deal with the Holocaust, despite the fact that dozens have been made and the subject continues to fascinate. 9/11 is a story with tremendous international implications, and the on-going war in Iraq, that is still doggedly defended by Bush supporters as a response to the 9/11 attacks (in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary) has kept the tragedy very much alive in the conscience of a nation. But how will national tragedy play out at the local multiplex? Stay tuned.

Sandy Mandelberger
Industry Editor

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