“My father was a firefighter on 9/11. I never met him.”— Megan Fehling, born October 2001.
September 11, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sadly, the number of casualties continues to grow. 9/11 First Responders have faced chronic illness and many have succumbed to cancer. And those who lost loved ones continue to carry the debilitating burden of grief.
Generation 9/11, directed by documentarian Liz Mermin and produced for PBS by a Brit-based team helmed by Emmy®-winner John Smithson, zeroes in on a unique population tragically affected by the 9/11 debacle. Among the victims of the terrorist attacks were 105 expectant fathers. The two-hour film introduces us to six of their children, born after the death of their dads. The seventh was a toddler who had yet to meet his dad at the time of his death.
Generation 9/11 debuts on PBS tonight, August 31, 2021, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, and see below for streaming info.)
I was anxious to meet the seven young people profiled in this film. Born at the dawn of the 21st century, these culturally diverse young men and women, now 20-year olds and counting, don’t disappoint. Their stories contribute much needed perspective to post 9/11 media coverage.
Megan Fehling’s firefighter dad was killed in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, leaving a pregnant wife behind. Nick Gorki’s mother, Paula, worked in the South Tower. On 9/11, her morning sickness made her late to work; but her partner, Nick’s expectant dad Sebastian, had an unexpected meeting in the South Tower and did not survive. Fares Malahi was three in September 2001, living in Yemen with his older brother and mother while awaiting their U.S. visas. Fares never met his father, Abdu, who was working as an AV engineer at the Marriott in downtown Manhattan and died helping guests evacuate the hotel.
Ronald Milam, Jr.’s parents both served in the military and were working at the Pentagon on 9/11 on opposite sides of the building. After Ronald Sr. was killed, Ronald’s mother left the Army and moved the family to Texas. Dina Retik’s father was a venture capitalist and a passenger on hijacked American Airlines Flight 11. Claudia Szurkowski’s father worked for the union of painters and wallpaper hangers in the North Tower on 9/11. Luke Taylor’s father, Lt. Colonel Kip Taylor, died in the Pentagon attack. Luke’s mom passed away of cancer two years later.
Their lives may have begun on a horrific note, but their reflections, in retrospect, are surprisingly stoic. As babies and toddlers, they were oblivious to why and how they lost their dads. Some of their moms remarried, had more babies and, overall, the youngsters welcomed their new siblings and stepdads. How do you miss someone you never met? They adapted, and lived the hand they were dealt.
Their insights and those of their moms, stepparents and siblings are embellished with extensive period photos, home movies and media footage spotlighting various family, sports, and educational milestones, as well as the trajectory of 9/11 and the anniversaries that have commemorated it.
That these young people grew up to be seemingly healthy, well-adjusted young adults during a 20-year period when our political, cultural, racial, environmental and global climate was anything but healthy and stable is pretty amazing. Of course, as a young black man, Ronald, and his mom fear the ever-present threat of racist policing. And Fares, who did know his dad, at least from afar, faces discrimination due to his ethnicity and sadly seems to have struggled to gain a footing in America.
Generation 9/11 is engaging when it focuses directly on the seven young people and their personal journeys. Clips of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama are clearly relevant to their stories. But attempts to broaden the film’s reach by piggybacking such topical hot button issues as Black Lives Matter, school shootings, the Capitol riot, the pandemic, climate change and Trump vs. Biden are clumbsy and distracting.
It’s at times like this that I remember how much I miss the late, great British filmmaker, Michael Apted (the brilliant director of the 7 Up documentary series). How wonderful to imagine Apted’s take on the seven young people profiled in Generation 9/11. He would have followed them every seven years, in successive films, focusing squarely on their personal hopes, dreams, loves and loss, and the psycho-social issues that impacted them individually at those specific ages. Parameters matter!!
Instead, Generation 9/11 is an overlong film that covers 20 years in their lives… and frankly, ours too (via the inclusion of ongoing national and international issues facing all of us). It bites off more than it can chew. Hopefully, the press screener that I viewed has been fine-tuned before broadcast.
Generation 9/11 will have potential in high school, university and college classrooms and counseling programs dealing with grief recovery, family trauma, single parenting, and, of course, post-9/11 studies.
Generation 9/11 premieres on PBS tonight, August 31, 2021, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.) The film will stream simultaneously with broadcast and be available on all station-branded PBS platforms, including www.pbs.org and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV and Chromecast. PBS station members can also view the documentary via PBS Passport.–Judith Trojan