Rather than rehash some of what I was saying in class, here are a couple of links.
This first is a link to a symposium on some uses of Project Rebirth at Georgetown University presented by CNMTL (Center For New Media Teaching and Learning), where they only saw a 30-minute cut of the film but Whitaker himself was also there to answer questions. From the description:
"Filmmaker Jim Whitaker discussed the film and introduced a 30-minute preview of the film and Dr. John DeGioia, President of Georgetown University, lead a panel discussion with Whitaker and faculty from Columbia University and Georgetown University who are using the archive of interview footage in innovative pedagogical ways."
That phrase, "innovative pedagogical ways," should make one suspicious - or at least, it certainly makes me suspicious - but I'll get to that in a second.
So here, Bernard Cook discusses uses of Project Rebirth as a documentary film.
Cook is remarkably critical and right to Whitaker's face about things like the consistent framing or the background, or the absence of a "voice of God" (he doesn't put it that way, but we can recognize some of his language as film students, right?) Interestingly, Cook also mentions the Muslim woman who was not featured in the version we saw, which makes me really wonder who and where will get to see that set of interviews, and why.
In case you're interested, there are a few other bits online (for example, here an English professor talks about using Project Rebirth in his classes) from the symposium. But I'll simply point out that the more I watched, the more I became uneasy of how...pathological were the responses, how almost too easily adaptable these stories are or are capable of being adapted to a pedagogical environment. I have to ask why.
Slavoj Žižek has spoken at length about some of this, and there's a bit here at Lacan.com but there's also a 2006 article from The Guardian about it you can read here. From the more Lacanian article:
"Two Hollywood productions were released to mark the 5th anniversary of the 9/11: Paul Greengrass's United 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. The first thing that strikes the eye is that both try to be as anti-Hollywood as possible: both focus on the courage of ordinary people, with no glamorous stars, no special effects, no grandiloquent heroic gestures, just a terse realistic depiction of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
There is undoubtedly a touch of authenticity in the films - recall how the large majority of critics unanimously praised the film's avoiding of sensationalism, its sober and restrained style. It is this very touch of authenticity that should make us suspicious - we should immediately ask ourselves what ideological purposes it serves.
In a hidden way, United 93 and WTC...read the 9/11 catastrophe as a blessing in disguise, as a divine intervention from above to awaken us from moral slumber and to bring out the best in us. WTC ends with the off-screen words which spell out this message: terrible events like the Twin Towers destruction bring out in people the worst AND the best - courage, solidarity, sacrifice for community. People are shown to be able to do things they would never imagine of being able. And, effectively, this utopian perspective is one of the undercurrents that sustain our fascination with catastrophe-films: it is as if our societies need a major catastrophe in order to resuscitate the spirit of communal solidarity.
This brings us to the last and crucial feature: both films restrain not only from taking a political stance about the events, but even from depicting their larger political context. Neither the passenger on United 93 flight nor the policemen in WTC have a grasp on the full picture - all of a sudden, they find themselves thrown into a terrifying situation and have to make the best out of it. This lack of 'cognitive mapping' is crucial: both films depict ordinary people affected by the sudden brutal intrusion of History as the absent Cause, the invisible Real that hurts. "
Keep in mind that Žižek is especially interested in how we tell ourselves stories about the Other, in this case the terrorists, who are not only rather abstracted in these films, but also almost entirely remote and made unspecific, contrasting their 9/11 victims. For Žižek, this is precisely because these narratives of 9/11 are nearly completely divorced from their political context.
When I saw Project Rebirth, I recognized its divorce from the political context so quickly as to almost immediately shut me off and make me suspicious of what the film was being used for. But in the end, I felt it was actually remarkably done precisely because of how sensitive to its subjects it was. And yet I find that precisely because of this, the film can and is being used in these pedagogical ways, precisely in the ideological "cognitive mapping" ways I was suspicious of from the beginning.
So, to sum up and return to what I was trying (and failing) to say in class: I must ask myself how it is possible that a film I/we saw in the theater, where it can exist without context, will now be marketed so specifically bound within a context that it has the ability to pathologize 9/11 for viewers in pedagogical ways? Will it get away with doing so because of the "reality" of the documentary film form?