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Teen’s film looks at 9/11 through youths’ memories

NEW YORK (AP) — What Brook Peters saw and heard in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, is recorded in his mind in flashes and fragments, a set of visceral memories that weighed on him for years. He was 4 years old. It was his second day of kindergarten.

At age 11 1/2, he started shooting a documentary about the catastrophe. The 38-minute movie, an eighth-grader’s look at the 9/11 he and fellow students experienced, received its debut screening Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Family Festival.

Whittled from 18 hours of interviews Brook conducted in his spare time, “The Second Day” aims to view the disaster from a vantage point not often seen, and indeed often guarded: that of the children in its midst. As the attacks’ 10th anniversary approaches, the film also sheds light on the complex, highly individual nature of memories, particularly for young children.

“I’m sure not everybody remembers the full day so vividly, but we all have our flashes and our things that truly stay with us for life,” the 14-year-old filmmaker said as he and his mother, Michelle Peters, squeezed in a meal Thursday between school, homework and a film festival event. However different the recollections, he found, there “was always stuff that people will never forget.”

Brook had just started school at P.S. 150, eight blocks from the World Trade Center, when the hijacked jetliners flew over his public school toward the twin towers. He says he remembered the loud roar of a plane going over his school. Later, when he was near the trade center, “I remember seeing ... it looked like a stick figure, but it was holding a briefcase, falling.”

In clips of the film released before the screening, a student who was in prekindergarten at P.S. 150 on that day also recalls the sound of a low-flying jet. Another, then in fourth grade, describes the hubbub later on as displaced students crowded into other schools. A principal recalls being on the ground, praying and feeling glass cut at her neck, while she was washed over by the mammoth wave of dust created by a collapsed tower.

Compiled from 20 interviews with students, teachers, firefighters and others, the movie is a personal project that has become part of the public narrative of documenting and memorializing the attacks.

“Brook Peters and his film are part of how we New Yorkers remember, how we open up about our own experiences and how we recover,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who honored him with a proclamation this week.

On the surface, the experiences recounted in “The Second Day” might seem like memories anyone would yearn to forget.

But both children and adults can benefit from revisiting and exploring traumatic memories to make sense of them, said Dr. Glenn N. Saxe, chairman of the New York University Child Study Center. That can be especially true of memories formed before the age of about 5 or 6, when people generally acquire the ability to put recollections of individual instants into a sequence and context, the psychiatrist said.

“There’s a strong motivation people have ... to make meaning” and help both themselves and others understand what they experienced, said Saxe. His center worked extensively with children in downtown Manhattan schools after 9/11, but he doesn’t know Brook.

For Brook, who grew up knowing the local firefighters and struggled later with memories of them on Sept. 11, the movie began as a way of furthering his longtime interest in filmmaking. But it ended up being therapeutic, he said.

“It’s been healing, for myself as well as others, in getting stuff off not only my chest — without having to really say anything — but also helping other people,” he said. Some of his young interviewees had never really talked about it before, he said. He had been reluctant, too.

“I definitely had a very bad experience that day,” he said.

His mother, an actress who had done volunteer work on fundraisers for firefighters, was on her way to a firehouse for a meeting when the first plane hit the trade center’s north tower. She was quickly drawn into helping relay messages among firefighters as they began to organize the massive response, she recalls.

After the south tower was hit, she dashed to Brook’s school to collect him and brought him back with her to the area where she had been helping. After the dust cloud enveloped the area, they ran into a firehouse.

“For a little kid, he had a horrible look on his face,” Capt. Anthony Varriale remembered this week. Varriale was interviewed for Brook’s documentary and was struck by how deep the teen’s memories were.

“I knew exactly why this kid wanted to do this, because it’s probably been on his mind since he was 4 years old,” Varriale said.

Brook grappled for years afterward with his memories of the burning towers, the falling people the young boy initially described as “asteroids” and the firefighters who told him to take care of his mom and expressing messages for their own families.

The movie gave Brook new insights into the vagaries of even such sharp memories. He realized he had recalled some events out of sequence. Some older students remembered being displaced from their schools for a shorter period than they actually were, his mother said.

Some teens were loath to talk about Sept. 11. But others were “very ready to talk about it because they haven’t really gotten the opportunity to before” and were willing to open up to a peer, Brook said.

Many parents tried to shield their children from the horror of the attacks, and “ultimately, a lot of them never really asked their kids how they felt about that day, even years later,” his mother noted.

Brook shot “The Second Day” on a basic camcorder, editing it on family friends’ computers because the Peters’ own couldn’t handle video. Thanks to his mom’s acting contacts, it boasts as narrators Charles Durning and Dan Lauria, who is currently starring in Broadway’s “Lombardi.”

Now at an arts-focused public middle school, Brook has made some other films, including animated pieces shown at a children’s film festival.

He wants to be a filmmaker — and a firefighter, too.

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