Everybody has a story about where they were on Sept. 11, 2001. From the mundane and distant to the horrifyingly personal, those memories will endure forever. They’re all worth hearing, because it’s the defining event of the 21st century and bonds us together, no matter how strong or tenuous the connection. Like most people spread across the country without a personal connection to New York, my memories skew toward the surreal. I was a junior in high school, and my friends and I were set to pick up Jay-Z’s The Blueprint before going to class. Instead, we stayed at my house and watched the news before going to school, where we watched the news some more.
DIRECTOR: Amy Schatz
Eighteen years after 9/11, former students of a high school near the World Trade Center share their memories of that day.
How are you supposed to react to that type of national tragedy as a high school student? That’s the focus of new HBO documentary In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11. Director and producer Amy Schatz (who also produced What Happened on September 11, premiering on HBO today) revisits that day through the accounts of eight former Stuyvesant High students. The school, located mere blocks from the World Trade Center, gave the students a front row seat to history.
Stuyvesant High was so close that, upon its reopening a month after the attacks, the students could still see smoke wafting from the rubble and smell the burning. To hear the recollections of that day from the former students, now adults in their early thirties, is staggering. Their stories are a time machine, putting them back in their classrooms and homes. They will have a similar effect on viewers.
In the Shadow of the Towers works so well because of the sense of immediacy that comes with 9/11. As time passes and our memories become more abstract, 9/11 still feels tangible 18 years later. While the bulk of the doc centers on the day itself, it also gives important context about the world pre- and post-9/11.
Among the interviewees is Catherine Choy, who fondly recalls her 90-minute commute to school. Ilya Feldsherov talks about his family relocating to New York from Ukraine. Similarly, Mohammad Haque speaks about his family’s roots. Though the group of people interviewed is small, they paint a picture of a diverse community within Stuyvesant High and New York. We all know New York is a melting pot, but seeing what that meant on Sept. 10 compared to the next day is potent. The world changes every day, usually in subtler ways.
Many details from In the Shadow of the Towers stand out, but two hit me particularly hard. The first is Carlos Williams watching the first plane hit. Taresh Batra talks about looking through the window as the second plane hit, then turning to the TV and seeing it again. These moments sound cinematic in their horror, but they were real life. Elsewhere, Mohammad recalls being in gym class and feeling the school shake as the South Tower fell. Multiple students mention seeing people jumping from the towers prior to their collapse. Those students, and the nation, got a lifetime’s worth of memories and trauma in less than a couple hours.
As the students left Stuyvesant to go home, they immediately saw how their world had changed. Himanshu Suri mentions seeing a fellow student wearing a hijab and being yelled at by strangers. Other Muslim and Middle Eastern students watched as parts of their community turned on them in the blink of an eye. I wish In the Shadow had more time to explore this thread, but that’s not really what Schatz is after here. However, the small doses we do get are pointed.
The second detail I can’t shake comes from Mohammad. People scrambled to call home after the attacks, sharing one student’s Nextel phone. As students took turns calling concerned parents, Mohammad’s father told him to “please survive.” It’s a moment so visceral I had to pause the film for a few minutes.
Despite its brief runtime of 30 minutes, In the Shadow of the Towers offers a robust picture of Stuyvesant on 9/11. The coverage of the attacks is political more often than not, and revisiting that day through the eyes of people without an agenda is invaluable. Perspective is important, and In the Shadow of the Towers delivers that, which makes it necessary viewing. It’s a somber piece of remembrance, punctuated by archival footage and photos of that sunny morning as it turned dark. I wish the film had more time to explore certain topics more deeply. Nevertheless, it gives viewers a good reason to evaluate their memories of 9/11 in relation to the experience of the students at Stuyvesant High.