15-year-old filmmaker shows 9/11 through children’s eyesWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
NEW YORK CITY – Four-year-old Brook Peters watched the South Tower collapse over his mother’s shoulder as she held him and ran. He watched what looked like stick figures falling from the buildings, one with a briefcase, two holding hands.
Sept. 11, 2001, was Brook’s second day of kindergarten. His school, P.S. 150, was four blocks north of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Brook didn’t lose his father on 9/11 like Oskar Schell, the 9-year-old central character in the Oscar-nominated film “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Instead, he lost dozens of father figures.
Brook grew up in and around New York City’s fire stations, where his single mother, Michelle, was a longtime volunteer fundraiser. He took his first steps at a fire station, celebrated birthdays there and loved being allowed to help wash the rigs.
On the morning of 9/11, Michelle was at a fire station blocks from the towers. Once the second airplane hit, she decided to get Brook from school.
“There was a flood of parents trying to come in and pick up their kids,” Michelle told Toledo Free Press from the family’s apartment in Lower Manhattan. “He wasn’t too happy about it. He had just started playing with blocks on the floor and Mommy was the buzzkill. I told him there was a bad fire and the firefighters needed me, so he knew there was a fire, but he didn’t get that a plane had gone into the building.”
Michelle returned to the station with Brook, who clearly remembers a firefighter on his way to Ground Zero telling him to grow up to be a good man and take care of his mother.
“That I will never get out of my mind,” Brook said. “A lot of them didn’t come back. In fact, I don’t think any of them did. They were the first responders so they were pretty much all wiped out.”
Despite his young age, other firefighters gave Brook messages to pass to their spouses and children.
“I think it was just a mixture of me happening to be there and me knowing them,” Brook said. “They were like, ‘He knows my wife; he knows who I’m talking about. He knows my kid; he played with my kid. Or even if he doesn’t, he could find out easier than just a normal civilian because he knows who I am.’ ”
For years afterward, Brook struggled with guilt.
“He couldn’t remember what firefighters had told him, the messages for their families. He was not distinguishing who was who,” Michelle said. “I don’t even know if I could remember all that, and he was only 4. So he had a lot of guilt about that.”
When Brook was 11, he decided to make a documentary about 9/11 from the perspective of New York City’s schoolchildren. Using a handheld video camera and borrowed editing equipment, he finished the 37-minute film just before his 14th birthday.
“The Second Day” was screened at New York’s Tribeca Film Fest in May, where it received a standing ovation from a sold-out crowd of more than 900 people.
The film can be viewed online for $3.99 at theseconddayfilm.com or purchased on DVD for $29.95.
Brook said he was surprised to find many of his peers had never talked about or processed their 9/11 experiences.
“I always lived in an environment of being able to speak about it,” Brook said. “My mom was always open about talking about it. I also went to therapy for seven years where I was talking about it, so I was never bottled up or contained with it.”
“I found out a lot of people weren’t as fortunate as I had been. Most people, their families didn’t want them talking about it. Their families sheltered them completely almost. It was just interesting and also very surprising finding this out because it was something that was almost the polar opposite from me.”
Brook said the filming was another step in his healing process.
“It helped me personally with being able to know there was a community that could understand what I was going through and I could understand what they were going through and we could kind of help each other kind of climb upwards,” Brook said.
Brook and his mom still live in Lower Manhattan, where Brook is now 15 and a freshman in high school. The dusty firefighter’s jacket Michelle wore on 9/11 still hangs on a coat rack in their living room. Michelle still volunteers at the stations and the FDNY firefighters are still Brook’s extended family – a family he hopes to officially join one day.
Brook said the anniversary of 9/11 seems to get harder every year instead of easier.
“It doesn’t feel like 10 years. It feels like a short amount of time. Because it’s still so close, not only in our hearts but in the city,” Brook said in August as the 10-year anniversary of the attacks approached. “We rebuilt after 9/11; we’re stronger and still standing. But with all the construction still down there, it’s almost like it’s still continuing. We’re just not healed yet. I think the city of New York is kind of ready for it, but also not at the same time.”
Brook said 9/11 changed New York, and especially his generation.
“I think it definitely made us more aware of our surroundings, made us grow up and know that bad things can happen, but also seek out the light that is there,” Brook said. “Within the darkness we want to bring the light out of that situation and try to make the best out of everything.”
To that end, Brook recently launched Show Your Strength, a community action campaign asking teens to submit photos of themselves along with an inspirational message. Hundreds of photos have been submitted and can be viewed as a slide show at theseconddayfilm.com, accompanied by music from the band Simple Plan.
“I approached Simple Plan to use the song ‘What If’ as the soundtrack to the Show Your Strength video because I feel it makes listeners question what they can do to change themselves and, in turn, help to change the world,” Brook wrote on the website.
“The bottom line is we all have strength and resilience within us,” Michelle said. “We can get through something tragic and still learn from it. Reaching out is a good thing, talking about it is a good thing.”
For more information, visit theseconddayfilm.com.