I’m sitting on the porch of a guest house. It has a corregated tin roof and a floor made from lengths of bamboo split in half. In one or two places, your foot goes right through the floor. Inside are several bedrooms but a gigantic wolf spider- something like a less hairy tarantula in one of the bedrooms (“they are territorial”) makes the porch my perch of choice. I’m drinking Nescafe surrounded by duffel bags. The porch is surrounded by mud. (Thank you for the wellies LLBean.) The mud is surrounded by water. Yesterday we hiked from the beach of this island to this camp in knee, sometimes waist-deep water. I took a wrong step and fell in the flooded river. I hauled myself out with some help from the local man carrying my duffel bag. That incident, plus a very small speedboat ride in giant swells that mostly landed in my lap have instilled in me a new, almost reverent appreciation for dry pants. Also it rains here like nothing I’ve ever seen. You can strip down and shower in it. Last night it rained so hard our sound guy Aaron woke up in the middle of the night shouting “Are we going to survive!?”
There are about a dozen members of a family here, sitting hanging around the open fire (keeping the water hot for the Nescafe) and watching our preparations for filming birds. We are on Fergusson Island, Papua New Guinea. We are definitely the main event. The people are friendly and helpful – they own this land and are paid for having us here. They all chew betel nuts – bright green things, pointed on both ends that turn their teeth red. Some kind of lime dust activates them into a weak narcotic. The effects seem to include incredibly fast speed walking through mud and carrying heaving objects as if they weighed nothing. Yesterday, scouting in the swamped jungle, I turned around and the twelve-year-old boy behind me gave me a wide smile. If I didn’t already know about the betel nuts, his red mouth, the giant machete he was holding and PNG’s history of cannibalism would have really freaked me out. The women in the camp offered me some betel nut – they called it “lipstick”. I think chewing betel nuts must be a national part-time job.
There is something incongruent about bringing 450 kg and six people into the remote jungle of PNG, 6 hours boat ride from the nearest airport during a period of torrential rain and flooding to photograph two colorful male birds dancing on a branch. Or maybe worse, to make a film about two guys photographing two male birds dancing on a branch. I guess that’s why no one else is going. Anyway, the second half of our gear finally arrived at camp, much of it carried on the heads of elderly looking women. I’m watching a giant black butterfly with two lemon yellow patches on it’s bottom feeding from red flowers in a tree next to my hut. Like all things (spider) it’s as big as my fist. (Did I mention the millipedes that spit red cyanide? Don’t worry – the cure is rotten coconut.)
Coconut is actually sounding pretty good – meals here consist either of Andre the Giant’s saltines – tooth-breaker “Navy Biskets” eaten with peanut butter. Disconcertingly they come in meat flavors. Extra disconcertingly, the chicken flavored ones are the best. They taste just like those crackers “Chicken n’ Biscuits” that were shaped like little chicken legs. For dinner it’s ramen noodles with tinned fish (do not look at the picture on the can) white rice (a-plenty) and boiled root veggies – taro, white sweet potatoes and something called pumpkin that was more like a yam. On top of whatever diabetic unfriendly combination you choose, it’s best to dump a lot of red duck sauce. There is also a confusing array of drink packets – something that turns into milk, something that turns into cocoa and of course Nescafe.
I just found a Quantas Airlines cappuccino short bread cookie in my pack, I didn’t deign to eat it when I was still in civilization, but here it is amazing.
Our crew was having dinner in New York City when we heard Bin Laden had been found and killed. We grabbed a cab back to our hotel so we could watch Obama’s speech, and on the way told the cabbie what had happened. He was so excited he could barely drive – trying to tune the radio in, asking us to tell him a second time. Later, the criticism of people celebrating made me think of that New York cab driver. He wasn’t vindictive; he was just so glad that part of a long, sad chapter of that city’s history was over.
The next day we did eight interviews with people who had experienced the events of that day firsthand. Overall, their reactions to the news were mild – we heard “that’s great but it doesn’t really change anything.” Maybe it was one pat headline too many for people who had had the weird misfortune to find themselves in the intersection of news and personal trauma.
Our show is about the objects in the National Museum of American History’s 9/11 collection. At first we worried that the focus was too narrow, but the more people we talked to, the more it seemed like the right way to approach the story of that day.
We filmed at the firehouse where Jules Naudet, who captured the only shot of the first plane hitting, was making a documentary 10 years ago. I had a chance to chat with firefighters who were there that day and heard things I’d never heard before – things that probably don’t belong in a film or a blog. Mostly though, it was clear that no one like me could do more than scratch the surface. One firefighter asked me to follow him down to their basement. In the corner of the room was a collection of their own – truck parts mostly, crushed and twisted metal. Things they had saved from the day. Just lying in the corner of a basement for ten years. That’s how 9/11 is – you don’t know what to do with it, you can’t throw it away.
It was hard to balance the story of the object collecting with the story of the day in the film. The survivors, the lost and how the objects in the museum connect a viewer to that day trump almost everything else. But the curators were profoundly affected by the collecting experience. (One of them, David Shayt, is sadly now deceased. We never knew him, but we felt his presence as many of the people who donated objects spoke of how wonderful he was to work with.) We heard stories about climbing into shipping containers full of airplane parts and visiting the horrifically named “Fresh Kills” landfill-turned-crime-scene on Long Island. These guys spent months wading into what any sane person would try to avoid, looking for meaningful objects. Everyone who experienced the aftermath – the massive “pile” of wreckage in New York, the burnt hole in the ground in Shanksville, the melted office interiors at the Pentagon, got a dose of the awfulness that lasted much longer than one day.
Everyone in our film talked about the smell. From Noe DeWitt and Carrie Hunt who lived next door to the WTC, to iron worker Jimmy Connor who, with his brothers from Local 40, helped clean up the wreckage. (Jimmy told us that he found a case of wine in a wooden box – something “crazy old like 1940 or something” with only three bottles broken that might have come from Windows on the World on the 103rd floor. They drank a few bottles one night with hamburgers at the Salvation Army’s mess tent for WTC workers.) On our first day of filming with the actual objects, we got a sense of what they were all talking about. Even ten years later, they smell. It’s been described as jet fuel – and that is part of it – but it’s also everything else. It’s the smell of grief and disaster.
Jeff Wiener lost his life in the WTC. Sitting at a desk in a library, deep in the part of the museum visited only by staff, I read through a fat file of paper donated by the Wiener family. There were official documents, reports from the medical examiner’s office detailing the effort to recover his remains, evidence of a long and careful search for information. And then there were stacks of sympathy cards. You could tell that Jeff was someone special, loved by many. The Wiener family donated his things to the museum to create a legacy for a young man who died without having had children of his own. I like the idea that in a hundred years another curator, researcher or filmmaker may read those same cards and also try not to cry directly on them.
When we arrived to film at the beautiful Pentagon memorial, the sun was going down, it was empty and I walked around looking for people’s names I knew – Barbara Olson, Jerry Henson’s office mate Jack Punches, Dave Thomas’ best friend Bob. The memorials are arranged by victim’s age. When you walk in, you almost breeze past the first couple because there is a big space between them and the rest – that’s the space between the children and adults. I don’t know their stories, but those kids and that big space just killed me. A bunch of teenagers arrived in a bus to wander around and it seemed wrong that they were laughing and sitting on the benches.
The teenagers were there – wearing clothes I didn’t really understand, goofing around, and splashing the water – because life just rolls on and on which, undoubtedly, is a good thing.