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New 9/11 Time-Lapse Documentary Debuts at Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival wrapped up this past weekend in Park City, Utah, leaving film bloggers abuzz with predictions about which of the festival's favorites will strike big theatrical deals in the coming year. Though it may not have won the big documentary award given on Saturday, Jim Whitaker's "Rebirth" is likely to be of special note to New Yorkers: it's a new documentary about 9/11 and Ground Zero.

"Rebirth" is more than a film. It's a non-profit organization called Project Rebirth, which has so far raised funds to enact the Herculean feat of filming a time-lapse video of the entire reconstruction at Ground Zero, shooting one frame every five minutes for 24-hours a day, year in and year out. Whitaker's crew has been gathering footage for the past nine years, and plans to continue filming through 2015.

At the same time, Whitaker has been conducting his own time-lapse of lives. He's taped annual interviews with five people affected by the September 11 attacks, including a woman who lost her firefighter fiancé and a teenager whose mother died in the World Trade Center.

Whitaker got the idea to do the film about a month after September 11, 2001 when he went to visit Ground Zero for the first time. "I went down there and was looking at the debris and the rubble and I just had this feeling of dread and anxiety," he says. "But also, the sense that one day the place would look very different, and that gave me a sense of hope. I thought, 'How can I capture this feeling?'"

The answer for Whitaker was to set up fourteen specially-designed boxes containing solar-powered 35mm cameras around the Ground Zero site, and document the story of a massive hole in the ground being replaced by a gleaming new Freedom Tower that would stand tall and triumphant.

Of course, it didn't exactly happen that way, but Whitaker says the endless construction delays at the Ground Zero site ended up contributing to the film instead of derailing it. "I started to realize there was a kind of correlation between the subjects and the site," says Whitaker. "The site progressed in bursts—the PATH train station and then Building 7, and then it would stop and slow down. And the film reflects a way in which the human progression was two steps forward and one step back. In the end, the construction mirrors the evolution of the people. I didn't expect that. It just evolved naturally."

"Rebirth," which was nine years in the making, was shown for the first time at Sundance on January 20. The five people he interviewed were in the audience. "We received two standing ovations. It was very emotional for all of us," says Whitaker, whose own mother passed away six months before 9/11. Making the film helped him grieve and move on alongside the subjects he interviewed.

Although the distribution details haven't been worked out yet, "Rebirth" is expected to be screened on television on September 11, 2011, ten years after the 2001 attacks. A theatrical release is also possibly in the works.

Below, watch a video of Project Rebirth's Directory of Photography Tom Lappin explaining the technical challenges of the Ground Zero time-lapse: