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Hot Docs At Home Review: 9/11 Kids

April 24, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

With this year’s edition of Hot Docs cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a selection of festival films are being given broadcast premieres every Thursday night from April 16th to May 28th on CBC, documentary Channel, and the CBC Gem streaming app, as part of the Hot Docs At Home series.

Sixteen kids are forever bound to history simply by virtue of where they happened to be on September 11th, 2001, that fateful morning when airplanes were hijacked by terrorists and flown into the sides of the Twin Towers in New York, forever changing the face of America and the world. The location was Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, and the kids were second grade students who had been selected for their superior reading skills, which were the highest in the county.

The morning was already momentous and exciting for these kids because President George W. Bush was visiting their class, in what was meant to be a feel good showcase of his No Child Left Behind education program. Instead, the President’s visit allowed news cameras to capture the exact moment when, in the midst of the students reading The Pet Goat alongside the Commander in Chief, his Chief of Staff Andy Cohen leaned in to whisper in his ear and inform him of the attack. Bush went stone-faced, but remained remarkably calm, not directly addressing the attack until after leaving the classroom.

It’s a moment and image that would become iconic, which these kids were unwittingly a part of, and footage from this moment keeps being revisited throughout director Elizabeth St. Philip’s very good documentary 9/11 Kids, which premiered last night. But the film flips the camera around to show this footage from the perspectives of the kids themselves, and allows us to catch up with six of these students, who are all now in their mid-twenties. While some of their stories are hopeful, and others less so, all of them are compelling, and it’s fascinating to see not only how they are doing now but also how the events of that morning continue to linger in their minds.

Their lives have been touched by poverty, racial profiling, police brutality and domestic violence. Natalia Pinkney-Jones is a magnetic figure in the film who takes us into her home where she runs a babysitting business, while also struggling to support her own kids and mother. She talks passionately about her late brother, and his deadly encounter with police. One of her classmates, Tyler Radkey, has similarly struggled with drug addiction and had unfortunate run-ins with police, and is being threatened with legal consequences that far outweigh his actions.

The other four former students that we follow have equally varied lives. Megan Diaz’s life has been shaped by horrific domestic violence, and now strives to help others recover. Meanwhile, Dinasty Brown is a successful entrepreneur who started a business right out of high school, and has done quite well for herself, and La’Damien Smith is serving in the military, being inspired to join the service due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Finally, Lazaro Dubrocq is the son of Cuban immigrants who works hard and is now able to financially support his parents and family. Dubrocq reflects upon the racism and xenophobia that has festered in America since 9/11, and how his Latino parents might not have even been allowed into the country now in order to make a better life for themselves as Americans. Some of the film’s most powerful moments come when Dubrocq visits the 9/11 memorial site, and witnesses the full scope of the tragedy.

We also hear from the teacher, Kay Daniels, who was in the classroom that morning and still cares deeply about the kids whom she unexpectedly had to shepherd through this tragedy. The narrative through line of 9/11 Kids is provided by Ronnie Phelps, a local radio host who is seen in his studio on the anniversary of 9/11 reflecting on the date and providing insight on the history of the area, acting as the documentary’s de facto narrator.

Through the stories of these former students, 9/11 Kids also becomes a portrait of Sarasota itself, which in many ways serves as a microcosm of America as a whole, with great disparities existing between rich and poor, white and non-white. The students at Emma E. Booker predominantly come from the city’s African-American community, an impoverished and over-policed area which we are told encompasses ten blocks on the opposite side of the tracks from the richer part of town.

Moving, inspiring, and heart-wrenching at times, 9/11 Kids allows us to revisit a pivotal moment in history, and how the effects of it continue to splinter and ricochet out, continuing to have a profound effect upon those who, by virtue of circumstance, are forever bound to it.

9/11 Kids is now available to stream on the CBC Gem app. The next Hot Docs At Home screening is Finding Sally, premiering on April 30th at 8 PM EDT on CBC TV and CBC Gem, and at 9 PM EDT on documentary Channel.

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