Last week, September 11, 2023, during the Toronto International Film Festival, Spike Lee sat down to discuss his latest documentary, NYC EPICENTERS 9/11-2021½, precisely 22 years after the 9/11 attacks.
The documentary available on HBO and Crave is about two significant moments in modern American history, 9/11 and the COVID-19 virus, depicting New York City as the “epicentre” and focus of these two tragedies. Before Spike spoke about his documentary, he showed us a 30-minute clip from his documentary.
Afterwards, Spike discussed his creative process, working on film, TV, scripted and unscripted across all the genres he’s worked in.
This documentary fits so well into Spike’s other past work. Just by listening, his previous films have such a pronounced musical significance to the story portrayed. You first notice the beautiful film score, which he worked on with his composer before ever getting to a first cut of the project. Another aspect that makes this documentary fit firmly in Spike’s work in New York City not just because it’s in the title.
From the tone with the visual depictions, even the font used, music and most of all, the interviews that drive the story forward all work hand in hand to convey the feeling of New York City and what that means. It’s more than a location. Spike uses many tools to show the story of this horrific day in America’s history, such as repetition emphasizing specific feelings and words. The interviews were the biggest factor in this being a must-watch documentary for me. The range of people involved in the overall story of this event was huge. From actors to first responders, cleaning staff and everyday citizens, so many stories were tied together, giving such a unique and spectacular perspective into what happened in New York City on 9/11, which is a direct parallel to the countless people it affected worldwide.
The room was packed for this 30-minute screening and then the following discussion. During the length of the screening, you could feel, very graphically, with everyone in that room together, the emotions of this documentary depicting such a dark day in modern history.
Spike’s approach to working on a project is unique, and you can see it across all his work going back to his first ever project, which was a short in 1979, all the way to today. One aspect that Spike consistently noted was when he’s working on a project, whether it’s a Hollywood feature with Denzel Washington or a short documentary, he doesn’t try to fit the piece into a defined genre, category or medium.
This is very evident throughout his work with the unconventional and mixed ways he uses to tell the story. I think this is one of the attributes that makes his work stand out so much consistently.
A particular lesson he also shared with everyone was regarding growth.
People, places and things can grow incredibly fast in today’s current landscape. Spike spoke about how he develops his project’s stories and has grown as a filmmaker by growing with people. He has worked with some of the same people and community for the last few years and even over the last decade, and they grow together, synergizing and bettering their craft year after year.