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A young Nick Gorki at the memorial pools

PBS

Fares Malahi

PBS

Claudia Szurkowski

PBS

Ronald Milam, Jr.

PBS

Liz Mermin

PBS
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September 10, 2021
In The Mix

A Public, Private Grief

In a PBS doc, a director explores the lives of young adults whose fathers died on 9/11 — before they were born.

Jacqueline Cutler

Commemorating the date your father died, usually, is inherently private. Yet the world memorializes the day some exceptional young people lost their fathers.

They are among the estimated 105 persons whose mothers were pregnant when their fathers died during the terrorist attacks.

Generation 9/11, a two-hour documentary which aired on PBS August 31, showcases a cross-section of these young adults who were never held by their fathers, never even met them.

"It is a film that goes along two tracks," director Liz Mermin explains. The first is personal: "How do you grieve a father you never met and form your identity?" The second is broader: "How have the frequently traumatic last 20 years shaped Generation Z?"

Mermin — an award-winning filmmaker whose credits include the First Ladies docuseries for CNN and the feature The Beauty Academy of Kabul — was an eyewitness to this chapter of history.

Then living in Manhattan's West Village, about two miles from the Twin Towers, she recalls, "I watched the whole thing from my window. It happened to be my birthday, and I was about to go running."

She spent much of the following year working on a documentary, Report from Ground Zero.

For this film — commissioned by PBS, Arte France and the U.K.'s Channel 4 — the expectation was that Mermin would spend about five days with each subject.

Unfortunately, Covid scotched those plans, so the production company, Arrow Pictures, sent cameras to participants and asked them to document themselves. They're part of Generation Z, which grew up on Snapchat, so this was natural. Mermin conducted some in-person interviews, outside. She also wove in home movies and photos showing the fathers happy, goofing around.

Most of the subjects have not asked much about 9/11.

Each of their mothers reveals how she's been ready to talk openly but refuses to push. However, one young woman, Claudia Szurkowski, regularly talks to the dad she never met and feels guilty if she misses a day. She cries, reflecting on what might have been.

The others, while never dismissive, are more removed. "It feels more like your history than my history," Nick Gorki tells his mom.

Yet they are inevitably part of this history and are reminded every year. When names of the dead are read annually at the 9/11 Memorial, relatives take turns at the microphone, as Nick did when he was nine. "I remember practicing for weeks, making sure I got every name right," he says.

Unlike the other young adults profiled, Fares Malahi, who was raised in Yemen, was already three years old on 9/11. But he, too, grew up fatherless as a result of the attacks. His father was killed while working at the Marriott hotel adjacent to the Twin Towers.

"We thought it was extremely important to get an international viewpoint," Mermin explains. "Fares has the same difficult form of grieving and trauma. How do you grieve someone you never touched, never heard?"


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2021

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