9/11 Museum Co-Founder Wanted It to Be Critical of America’s Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
The new doc “The Outsider” revisits the internal disputes over how NYC’s 9/11 Memorial & Museum should pay tribute to its victims—and be critical of the U.S. wars in its wake.
There’s a stark difference between a museum and a memorial—the former aims to present an enlightening historical account of a specific subject, while the latter seeks to pay tribute to a tragedy, and those who lost their lives. Those intentions are sometimes obviously at odds with each other, and the complications of reconciling them was at the heart of the creation of New York City’s 9/11 Memorial & Museum, whose conception, development and construction proved to be immensely controversial, even if the final product—which now exists in Lower Manhattan at the original site of the World Trade Center towers—is now an esteemed and popular draw for millions of tourists each year.
The Outsider (premiering Aug. 19 via Facebook, before its Aug. 20 release through Abramorama’s Watch Now @ Home platform) is a non-fiction inside-peek at the birth of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, told through the prism of Michael Shulan, a novelist who was living in SoHo in 2001 when al Qaeda terrorists flew two planes into the Twin Towers, forever changing the city, the country, and the world. After seeing his fellow New Yorkers intensely respond to a publicly displayed newspaper article about 9/11—coming up to it and touching it, as if to pay silent tribute—Shulan posted his own photograph of the towers on the window of his empty storefront. That eventually begat “Here Is New York,” a crowd-sourced photo exhibition of snapshots of the fateful day, which garnered media headlines and, in the process, turned Shulan into the nation’s de facto authority on 9/11 imagery.
Given that position, Shulan was hired to be the creative director of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. What that position entailed wasn’t exactly clear to Shulan, but it was apparent that his voice would be a prominent one alongside that of director Alice Greenwald, who’d have ultimate say on the myriad facets of the project. As its title implies, directors Steven Rosenbaum and Pamela Yoder’s film is a recap of that literally monumental undertaking from the up-close-and-personal POV of an interloper, since Shulan was virtually the only one involved in this endeavor who didn’t have illustrious museum experience. Attempting to have his views heard and accepted in an unfamiliar and complex environment, Shulan was often a man alone, fighting to keep his vision for the Memorial & Museum alive in the face of opposition and pressure.
That’s at least the general impression imparted by The Outsider, considering that Shulan winds up being only part of the story told by Rosenbaum and Yoder’s documentary. To be sure, Shulan’s presence is front-and-center early on, in fantastic footage of him, Greenwald, and colleagues bandying about ideas about the space, deliberating about the appropriateness of certain images and artifacts, and discussing the overriding mission of the venture. In those scenes—such as a harrowing meeting during which Shulan and others listen to victim Melissa Doi’s four-minute 911 call, and then hash out its power, value, and appropriateness for the Memorial & Museum—the film captures the tense push-pull between honoring the dead and the horrors of the attack and its aftermath, and producing something that won’t be so traumatic that it alienates attendees.
Shulan sought to create a place that would pose as many questions as it provided answers, and that increasingly put him in conflict with his collaborators. The closer the 9/11 Memorial & Museum got to completion, the more it drifted away from ambiguity and toward certainty, and in archival interviews from the time, Shulan speaks openly about these topics. Rosenbaum and Yoder are blessed with a wealth of behind-the-scenes material from that fraught period, their cameras situated in boardrooms and architectural studios where photos, blueprint designs, and larger conceptual issues are debated with candid passion. At its best, their documentary is an unvarnished look at the very messy task of serving multiple masters in an atmosphere of unbelievably charged political and social pressures—all of which was compounded by the fervent (and frequently contradictory) demands of the families, who were desperate to see the memories of their murdered relatives properly respected.
The issue with The Outsider, however, is that the longer it proceeds down its chronological path, the less Shulan becomes a real factor in its narrative. And rather than functioning as the antagonist to Shulan’s protagonist, Greenwald comes across as a committed curator trying to balance various demands and objectives on a project that can’t possibly please everyone. Her own significant on-camera input throughout The Outsider illustrates the enormous challenge of crafting something that everyone agrees is comprehensive, informative, and reverential. Both Greenwald and Shulan understand that their work is inherently about defining the history of 9/11, and therefore will reflect how we see that day, America, and ourselves. In the end, that Greenwald’s ideas won out over others’ is neither good nor bad; rather, it just seems like the byproduct of a collaborative endeavor that, eventually, needed someone to make a final decision that would please the greatest number of people.
Through conversations with, among others, Shulan, lead exhibition designer Tom Hennes, and narrator Bob Garfield (whose commentary is too NPR-stilted for its own good), The Outsider addresses certain individuals’ desires to have yhe 9/11 Memorial & Museum tackle thornier elements of the attacks, including the subsequent wars (and “enhanced interrogation techniques”) that were initiated in its wake. Yet Rosenbaum and Yoder’s film only dances around the margins of what it appears to be calling for, which is the inclusion of more Memorial & Museum elements that are critical of the U.S. That results in a vague, wishy-washy sense of critique, as if the directors don’t have the courage to fully articulate their true feelings. Moreover, such insinuations avoid transparent realities, such as the fact that interjecting censure of America into the Memorial & Museum would have provoked even more outrage than was incited by the project’s crass gift-shop items.
As for Shulan, he eventually disappears from The Outsider altogether, his departure from the project noted only by a textual coda—a rather fitting conclusion for a movie that ultimately loses sight of its main subject.