Nicholas" has been featured on (to name a few):
Clips that discuss James Ronald Whitney's work on "Telling Nicholas" (quicktime
player required for viewing):
Clips that discuss other works or the entire filmography of James
Independent Spirit Awards
Reed & other Critics
Television Clip Montage (CNN, Jenny Jones, The View, NBC, NY1, Fox, Inside Edition, Roger Ebert, Oprah Winfrey)
What Critics have to say
May 10, 2002 (Partial transcript)
We know that thousands of children in New York went
from having hope to hearing the unimaginable. Filmmaker
James Ronald Whitney captured on camera what one
family went through in the ten days following the
attacks. Here's some of that...
[SHOW CLIP FROM MOVIE]
OPRAH (voice over):
On September 11th filmmaker James Ronald Whitney
began a desperate search for news of missing friends.
The next day he was struck by this poster...
[SHOW CLIP FROM MOVIE]
James said he felt a connection between Michelle
and Nicholas. A connection so deep he felt compelled
to visit Michelle's family.
[SHOW CLIP FROM MOVIE]
James ended up spending the next ten days with them
as they continued to cling to hope that Michelle
would be found.
[SHOW CLIP FROM MOVIE]
What emerged was the story of a mother who loved
her son and a family trying to find a way to cope
with the emotional devastation.
[SHOW CLIP FROM MOVIE]
After ten days with all hope gone Nicholas's father
had to tell him the unthinkable, that his mother
was never coming home.
[SHOW CLIP FROM MOVIE]
Like Nicholas thousands of children heard
that heartbreaking news. "Telling
Nicholas" can be seen this Sunday,
May 19th at 10 pm on HBO.
[SHOT OF AUDIENCE MEMBER DRYING EYES]
May 13, 2002
and Its Consequences
HBO's cathartic Telling Nicholas, a family faces
giving a Sept. 11 victim's son the worst news of all
THE ATTACKS OF SEPT. 11, goes the saying, did
not kill 3,000 people; they killed one person 3,000 times. But
TV has focused mostly on Sept. 11's enormity: CBS's 9/11
celebrated the hundreds of fire fighters who died at the World
Trade Center; HBO's forthcoming In Memoriam gives a God's-eye
view of the Giuliani administration's response. The event was
so massive, its effects so sweeping and its images so staggering,
that like the fallen towers themselves, it defies human scale.
SHE'S IN NEW JERSEY": Shielded from the truth by his protective
family, Nicholas, 7, created fantasies to rationalize his mother's
in the wrenching Telling Nicholas (HBO,
May 19, 10 p.m. E.T.), James Ronald Whitney does something
different: he limns 9/11's emotional and social complexity
by tracing the stories behind two flyers posted for
missing victims. The first leads him to the Staten Island
home of Michele Lanza, whose family has not figured
out how to tell her bright-eyed son Nicholas, 7, that
his mother is never coming back. Granted intimate access
over 10 days, Whitney finds the Lanzas overwhelmed by
emotional stress and circling to protect Nicholas -
who tells himself his mom is lost in New Jersey or in
estranged husband Robert has arrived from Virginia, obligated
but terrified to tell Nicholas the truth, and it becomes clear
that some in the family blame Robert (a Fundamentalist Christian
and cultural outsider) for Michele's having to work and, thus,
for her death. One Lanza sister becomes catatonic; another
is fixated on a bogus Nostradamus prediction about the attacks
circulating on the Internet.
mother is consumed with anger at Muslims: "I want them
tortured," she rages. "Men, women, children."
As if to counter this reaction, Whitney traces another flyer
to the Brooklyn home of Shabbir Ahmed, a Bangladeshi waiter
killed in the attacks, and finds his family grieving as well,
while also afraid about the repercussion for them as Muslims.
Ahmed's teenage son Thambir becomes Whitney's assistant on
the documentary and ends up bonding with Nicholas.
these little moments of connection, Telling Nicholas,
can be cathartic and even funny, but it is not easy to watch.
When Robert finally breaks the news, the moment is raw, discomfitingly
private yet strangely mediated: we eavesdrop from the vantage
point of the therapist, brought in to coach Robert, who is
listening Cyrano-like over headphones on the front lawn of
the Lanza house. Nicholas is overwhelmed by tears and confusion
- he wants his mom back, he wants a new mom, he wants to go
to the local dollar store, he wants to pray, he's afraid of
dying. And yet within moments he collects himself and consoles
his grandmother. We see him get stronger, if not better. It
is a familiar triteness to say that America "loses its
innocence" in a tragedy. The terrible thing that Telling
Nicholas shows is what really happens: one child loses
his innocence, thousands of times.
-- James Poniewozik
10, 2002 - First Broadcast (Partial transcript)
A documentary airing on HBO tells the story of a mother
who was killed September 11th at the World Trade Center,
and her family's heart-wrenching efforts to tell her seven-year-old
son that his mother is gone. The documentary was made
by James Ronald Whitney. It's called "Telling
Nicholas" and it will be seen Sunday, May 19th
at 10 PM on HBO's America UnderCover Sundays. April Woodard
now with this preview.
[SHOW CLIP FROM MOVIE]
The world that seven-year-old Nicholas Lanza knows has just
vanished, but he just doesn't know it yet. The HBO documentary
shows an intimate portrait of a family's struggle to tell him
that his mother, Michelle Lanza, has died in the World Trade
Center attack. Her presence is felt intensely because like other
victims that day Michelle called home and left a message as
the World Trade Center burned around her.
[SHOW CLIP FROM MOVIE]
The filmmaker, James Ronald Whitney, found Michelle's family
after seeing her "missing" poster among the hundreds
plastered around Manhattan. When he met the family they allowed
him to film them for ten days until Nicholas' father, Robert,
finally summoned up the courage to break the terrible news.
[SHOW CLIP FROM MOVIE]
Wow... That's Inside Edition we'll see you next time.
[SHOT OF DEBORAH NORVILLE WIPING THE TEARS FROM HER EYES]
a time of universal emotional crisis, Ron Whitney's "Telling
Nicholas" is a wonderful, vibrant film that revived my faith
in humanity through the wisdom and courage of children. It's
poignant and positive and downright restorative. The fragile
bonding of two youngsters from different worlds---immune to
the same prejudice, anger and terror impacting the grownups
around them in the tragic aftermath of 9/11---forms an unforgettable
footnote to history that says volumes about the indestructibility
of the human heart."
-- REX REED
(Documentary -- HBO; Sun.,
May 19, 10 p.m.)
Taped in New York by Fire Island
Films. Produced, written, directed and edited by James Ronald
By STEVEN OXMAN
filmmaker James Ronald Whitney lived just below the World Trade
Center when the towers collapsed on September 11, and he immediately
grabbed his camera and began taping. The shots of the buildings
themselves, though, are easily the least interesting thing about
the superb "Telling Nicholas,"
which, documenting a ten-day period after the attack, starts
out as the story of informing a 7-year old his mother has died
but ends up depicting the near melt-down of a family. It's a
heart-wrenching film, genuinely deep in its examination of trauma,
grief, and the fissures that divide a family that's not as conventional
as they initially appear.
looking for pictures of people he knew at one of the big posting
sights for the missing, Whitney was immediately drawn to a
photograph of Michele Lanza and, sitting on her lap, her son
Nicholas. Within 72 hours of the attack, Whitney went out
to meet Michele's family in Tottenville, at the outer reach
of Staten Island.
focus is at this point completely on Nicholas, an adorable,
blonde-haired kid who knows something has happened but isn't
sure what. A neighbor is watching the boy in order to keep
him away from the television, while Nicholas' father Robert,
a soft-spoken Oklahoma native, is struggling with how to tell
his son the circumstances.
rest of the family, Michele's mother, father and two sisters,
continue to harbor hope that Michele may still be alive, and
they play for Whitney the phone message she left for her younger
sister Cindy after the first plane hit but before the second.
a clearer picture of the family emerges. Michele and Robert
were separated, with Robert living in Virginia. Her family
has, to be generous, mixed feelings towards Robert, whose
financial situation had lead to Michele's taking the job in
Manhattan to begin with, a job she didn't really want. The
initial trauma of the event gives way to anger, blame and
guilt, with the most blatant victim being Cindy, who falls
into a catatonic state and needs to be treated with anti-psychotic
drugs. Michele's mother, Ethel, still working hard to deny
her daughter's death, is stressed to the limit caring for
Nicholas and Cindy's two children.
brings in another family as well, the Ahmed family in Brooklyn,
devout Muslims. Shabbir Ahmed was a waiter at Windows on the
World and died in the attacks. His 16-year-old son Thanbir
becomes an eloquent voice in the film, and even develops a
bond with Nicholas when Whitney introduces the two.
is clearly not trying to be a detached observer here. In addition
to bringing Thanbir into the picture -- in part to blunt the
intensity of Michele's family's strong anti-Muslim feelings,
particularly from Ethel -- he also introduces the family to
psychologist Gilda Carle, whom the family trusts in part because
they've seen her on various television talk shows. Carle counsels
the family, with a particular focus on helping Robert deal
with the inevitable, informing Nicholas that his mother is
that event forms the climax of the film, Whitney has also
delved along the way into the forms of religious extremism
at work within this apparently all-American family. Michele's
older sister, who received a correspondence doctorate and
lives with a plethora of religious icons in the family basement,
claims the attacks were the culmination of prophecy, while
also blaming Robert's evangelical apostolic faith, with a
focus on female modesty, for oppressing Michele.
Aaron Davies' casual but polished cinematography to Mocean
Worker's sensitively mournful scoring, "Telling
Nicholas" is an expert work. Whitney's own first-person
narration helps it along, and the whole endeavor comes off
as deeply felt and highly personal, never the slightest bit
sensational or exploitative, which in lesser hands might have
been a possibility.
does all he can to give it something of an upbeat ending,
and accomplishes that to a degree with Thanbir and Nicholas's
help. He also shows a statistic, that it is thought over 10,000
children lost a parent on September 11th. The overall impact
of the film is devastating, and it clearly demonstrates that
the residual effects of that event continue to ripple not
just outward, but inward too.
Executive producer, Richard Reichgut; camera, Aaron Davies;
sound design, Benny Mouthon, James Ronald Whitney, Neil Stephens;
music, Mocean Worker. 85 MINS.
4 OUT OF 4 STARS!
-- The Daily News
a Boy - & 9/11
Nicholas," which has its premiere this weekend, explores
the aftershocks of the World Trade Center tragedy by focusing
literally and figuratively on a single photo and following
90-minute documentary, by James Ronald Whitney, is a remarkable
piece of filmmaking. It's also a staggering piece of detective
work, an impressive piece of social work, and a story so amazingly
unpredictable and unabashedly human that it's all but guaranteed
to move, surprise, gratify and linger with everyone who sees
In addition to its TV unveiling as a Mother's Day "America Undercover"
installment, "Telling Nicholas" is one of several films
about Sept. 11 that will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival,
which runs today through Sunday. Its place on the program, though,
is anything but parochial. To date, "Telling Nicholas"
is the most emotional film, and the best, to emerge from the
ashes of the terrorist tragedy - and that includes CBS' highly
regarded "9/11," which aired in March.
At that point, every photo on that wall, and on every other
wall like it, had a story to tell.
Personal: Nicholas Lanza, of 'Telling Nicholas'
who lived just a few blocks from the World Trade Center,
trained his camera on the towers shortly after the first
plane hit. All the footage from the documentary showing
the towers burning or collapsing was shot by Whitney
himself, including the encroaching dust cloud that drove
him from his home and immediate neighborhood.
many filmmakers, that would be enough; for Whitney,
it was only the starting point. The next day, as he
looked for (and, unfortunately, found) familiar faces
among the missing-persons flyers posted on the sealed-off
area's perimeter, one photo in particular caught Whitney's
eye. It was a picture of Staten Islander Michele Lanza,
36, and her 7-year-old son, Nicholas. The mother was
missing, and her family in Tottenville was seeking information
about her fate or whereabouts.
What Whitney did that was so rare, and so rewarding from a filmmaking
sense, was to follow that photo, and that thread, wherever it
He ended up finding a little boy who had yet to be told about
the disaster, and who would be sheltered from it for many days
afterward. The title of the movie suggests its central story
line, but this documentary contains much more.
Whitney is part archeologist, using everything he can unearth
- family films and photos, answering-machine messages, postcards
on an abandoned desk - to bring his subjects and their stories
and emotions to life.
Some of the ironies and artifacts are uncanny, but what's most
unbelievable is the intimacy of this real-time look at a grieving,
coping, sometimes fractured family.
To detail what happens would be to rob this true-life tale,
which no screenwriter could have written, of some of its potency.
There's no overarching happy ending here, but there are plenty
of scenes to be witnessed, and lessons learned about love, loss
"Telling Nicholas" is a documentary with a heart, and
a heartbeat, that I doubt I'll ever forget.
America Undercover presents the heartrending story
of a little boy who lost his mother in the Sept.
11 attacks. Seven-year-old Nicholas Lanza lives
on Staten Island, N.Y., in the shadow of Manhattan,
where his mother, Michele, worked in the World Trade
Center. In the 10 days following the tragedy, filmmaker
James Ronald Whitney ("Just Melvin, Just Evil")
spent time with Nicholas and his extended family
as they tried to cope with the loss of their loved
one, keeping his camera rolling even as Nicholas's
father tried to find the words to tell him that
his mother was never coming home. The film also
profiles a Muslim teen whose late father worked
near the top of the north tower.
James Ronald Whitney
Times (Check your
NAMES AND SMALL BUDGETS IN TRIBECA
UNDER THE STARS
by Jessica Winter, Anthony Kaufman, and Michael
May 14, 2002
inaugural Tribeca Film Festival offers a sneak preview of
the box office hopefuls Hollywood will be rolling out over
the coming weeks, including opening-night attraction About
a Boy (an adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel, with Hugh Grant),
Insomnia (Christopher Nolan's follow-up to Memento, pitting
Al Pacino against Robin Williams), and Attack of the Clones.
Two of the Star Wars screenings are reserved for families
hit hardest by September 11; the festival itself, co-founded
by Robert De Niro, is foremost a celebrity rally for resurgent
Lower Manhattan (venues include the Screening Room, Stuyvesant
High School, and the Tribeca Performing Arts Center; see tribecafilmfestival.org
for complete listings). The jury for best fiction feature:
Barry Levinson, Frances McDormand, Kevin Spacey, and, um,
In the disturbing...documentary Telling Nicholas, the
most controversial of the nonfiction films in the Tribeca
festival, filmmaker James Ronald Whitney spots a poster of
a seven-year-old boy with his mother, who went missing on
September 11. On September 12, Whitney journeys to the child's
Staten Island home to discover a dysfunctional family in denial
and unable to tell the boy his mother may be dead. Enlisting
the help of TV talk-show therapist Dr. Gilda Carle, Whitney
and crew enable the grieving process...capturing the grandmother's
fainting spells, a sister's ability to see "negative entities,"
and an apostolic father who takes 10 days to finally talk
to his son.
-- Michael Atkinson
Nicholas' an Island story of 9/11 heartbreak
film focuses on a family's struggle to tell 7-year-old Tottenville
boy his mother was lost in WTC attack
Wednesday, May 08, 2002
By DAVID ANDREATTA
ADVANCE STAFF WRITER
estimated 10,000 children lost a parent in the collapse of the
World Trade Center. Thousands of these children were old enough
to comprehend the tragedy. Thousands more had to be told of
An obsession with the prospect of bearing that burden is what
led filmmaker James Ronald Whitney to the Tottenville home of
Michele Lanza, a 36-year-old mother of one who worked on the
97th floor of Tower 2.
The result is "Telling Nicholas" -- a gut-wrenching and
intimate documentary that chronicles the suffering of one family
and its struggle to break the news to 7-year-old Nicholas Lanza
that his mother is dead.
A private screening for family members, friends and some members
of the media was held last night at HBO headquarters in Midtown
Unlike CBS's "9/11," which celebrated the hundreds of firefighters
who died at the World Trade Center, "Telling Nicholas" delves
into the emotional and social intricacies of Sept. 11 by tracing
the story of two fliers posted for missing victims.
Among the thousands of fliers that wallpapered New York City
within hours of the World Trade Center collapse was one seeking
information about Mrs. Lanza. The photo, which depicted a tanned
and vibrant woman hugging her bright-eyed son on a recent trip
to DisneyWorld, somehow stood out for Whitney.
"It was the very first photo I saw of a mother and child. There
were a lot of fathers with their kids, but not many mothers,"
Whitney said in a recent interview. "I immediately started thinking,
how are these children going to be told their parent, and in
some cases both parents, will not be coming home?"
Granted intimate access for 10 days, Whitney finds a family
overwhelmed by stress and circling to protect Nicholas -- who
thinks his mother "took a cab to Jersey" or is "somewhere in
New York City."
Mrs. Lanza's estranged husband, Robert, arrived in Tottenville
from Virginia a day before filming and is terrified to tell
Nicholas the news.
He immediately becomes the target of criticism, although not
for his reluctance to reveal the truth to his son, since Mrs.
Lanza's family holds out hope that she is alive and suffering
from "hysterical amnesia." Rather, some of Mrs. Lanza's relatives
blame him for her having to work at the World Trade Center,
and thus, for her disappearance.
The duress makes Mrs. Lanza's younger sister, Cindy Chamberlain-Oricchio,
catatonic. Her older sister, Susan Chamberlain, believes Mrs.
Lanza is dead but is not convinced that Lanza, a fundamentalist
Christian, is good for Nicholas.
Mrs. Lanza's mother, Ethel Chamberlain, is angry through most
of the film and distraught through all of it. "Death is too
easy for them," she says of the terrorists. "I want them tortured."
As if to counter Mrs. Chamberlain's reaction to her daughter's
killers, the film dissolves to the Brooklyn home of Shabbir
Ahmed, a Muslim waiter at Windows on the World who died in the
His family -- a wife, three children and a brother -- recount
tearful stories of Ahmed while at the same time they are compelled
to defend their faith. Ahmed's 16-year-old son, Thambir, later
assists Whitney in making the documentary and befriends Nicholas.
In a splash of comic relief, Nicholas and Thambir hit the Tottenville
Bakery to research a project for Thambir's social studies class.
Armed with an unmarked map of the world, they ask customers
to locate Afghanistan with a magic marker. High school teachers
and a college student fail miserably, identifying France, Ghana
Moments like that give the audience some breathing room in a
film that is brutally honest and otherwise difficult to watch.
The most heart-wrenching scene is of Lanza telling Nicholas
his mother is dead, 10 days after the attack. The private moment
is caught on tape by Whitney, who eavesdrops on headphones with
a therapist who coached Lanza on what to say.
Nicholas cries right away, as if he understood all along what
had happened and was waiting for an adult to confirm his worst
fear. Still, he hugs his father and asks why she had to die,
when he can get a new mother, what will happen to him and whether
he will die. All the while, the audience hears his tiny heart
racing over the microphone attached to Lanza's chest.
Nicholas eventually pulls himself together enough to console
his grandmother, who faints when she realizes her daughter is
not coming home. "Mommy's dead, but you will always have me,"
he tells her.
"The cameras were so secondary to them because they were concerned
with getting their mom, wife, daughter and sister back," Whitney
said. "Our being there was academic to a point. I was looking
at this as a model for how other parents could tell their children
that someone close to them is gone."
Whitney said that, unlike other documentaries he has made, he
did not have to employ a crew to distract Mrs. Lanza's family
from becoming fixated on the camera.
Despite some initial protests about Whitney's presence from
relatives, Ms. Chamberlain said her family grew comfortable
with him. Whitney himself was chased from his Tribeca loft by
the World Trade Center collapse and was temporarily without
"[Whitney] kept saying to us that my sister will be memorialized
forever in this film," Ms. Chamberlain said. "When others have
moved on and forgotten the people who died, they will still
Mrs. Lanza's father, Al Chamberlain, comforted his wife and
Ms. Chamberlain after last night's screening. Lanza and Mrs.
Chamberlain-Oricchio did not attend.
Chamberlain had seen the film once before and said the second
time was as emotionally draining as the first.
"The purpose of the film is to tell people who never lost a
loved one how those of us who did felt at the time," he said.
"It did its job."
"Telling Nicholas" is scheduled to air Sunday, Mother's
Day, at 10 p.m. on HBO.
Terror, loss, and restoring faith
By Suzanne C. Ryan, Globe Staff, 5/11/2002
horror of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has been thoroughly
documented on film. The emotional toll on the families of the
victims, however, has remained somewhat intangible. Until now.
Tonight in a powerful documentary, HBO's ''America Undercover
Sundays'' series takes viewers inside the home of Michele Lanza
over a period of 10 days as her family waits in vain for her
to return from work at the World Trade Center. Through it all,
Michele's estranged husband, Robert, struggles to find the courage
to tell their 7-year-old son, Nicholas, that she is never coming
home. The 90-minute film airs on HBO at 10 p.m.
Filmmaker James Ronald Whitney began shooting footage of the
burning towers after being driven from his nearby home. While
searching the ''missing'' posters for news about his friends,
he noticed a flier with a striking picture of Michele, 36, with
Nicholas. Whitney called Michele's family on Staten Island to
offer assistance (his previous HBO film, ''Just Melvin, Just
Evil,'' had made him familiar with child-support programs).
This film is the result of that phone call.
It's unclear why Michele's family - her mother Ethel, father
Al, sisters Susan and Cindy - agreed to allow a camera into
their home at such a sensitive time. It must have been therapeutic
because the family doesn't hesitate to vent their feelings.
Ethel is bitterly angry at Muslims, whom she says should be
tortured. She also indirectly blames Robert for Michele's death
because - she says - he separated from Michele and didn't provide
child support so she was forced to work. (Robert says he couldn't
pay a mortgage in Virginia and help Michele).
Cindy enters a catatonic state and refuses to speak because
she believes Michele would have lived if she hadn't stopped
to call Cindy and tell her she was evacuating the 97th floor.
Susan, meanwhile, is busy criticizing Robert as a father and
his religious beliefs which forced Michele to dress conservatively.
Susan has already called a lawyer about taking custody of Nicholas.
As the family passes through various stages of grief, Nicholas
continues to believe that his mother is just missing. ''I'm
thinking that she's in Jersey now,'' he says.
''Telling Nicholas'' is unmatched in its access inside
the home of one of the victims in the days following the tragedy.
The movie is impressive, not only in content, but because it
was made spontaneously with no scripts or planning, just raw
emotions. It is heart-rending yet fascinating to watch the family
debate when to tell Nicholas the news. And just when the film
begins to take a distasteful anti-Arab slant, Whitney skillfully
changes course by finding another ''missing'' poster - that
of Shabbir Ahmed, a Muslim waiter who was killed working at
Windows on the World, a restaurant at the top of one of the
Whitney goes to Ahmed's home and interviews his devastated wife,
Jeba, and their children Thambir, Salma, and Nadia. The children
tearfully describe their loving father and recall the day he
brought home a cake on which he had inscribed ''To the World's
Greatest Kids, Love Dad.''
In one of the most compelling and unexpected segments of the
film, 16-year-old Thambir befriends Nicholas (despite Ethel's
suspicions). Nicholas is unaware that Thambir's father has died.
The two begin work on a project in which New Yorkers are asked
to look at a map and identify Afghanistan and Bangladesh (Thambir's
homeland). Tellingly, participants pick Poland, Ghana, and Israel.
Others flatly say they have no idea.
The conclusion of the film is the most controversial segment
of the project. After 10 days, Robert is finally ready to tell
Nicholas about his mother...In the end, Nicholas appears to
be the hero. He comforts his sobbing grandmother, telling her
that she'll always have him. The movie ends with hope for race
relations. Thambir attends Michele's memorial service and, with
Ethel's permission, even comes by the house for cake and ice
10, 2002 Charleston,
Post and Courier
'Telling Nicholas:' Personal tales of 9/11
has been highly touted for its original series such as "Sex
and the City," "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under." Less publicized
but of the same caliber is "America Undercover Sundays," HBO's
documentary series. At this year's Academy Awards, "America
Undercover Sundays" presentation of "Murder on a Sunday Morning"
took home the Oscar for best documentary feature and throughout
the years the "America Undercover" series has garnered 43 Emmys,
12 Oscars and 16 Peabody Awards.
May 19, "America Undercover Sundays" presents "Telling
Nicholas" the story of two families with loved ones
lost on September 11.
Filmmaker James Ronald Whitney was scouring missing posters
for news of friends when two of the posters caught his eye.
One was a photograph of Michele Lanza and her young son Nicholas.
The poster was requesting information on a missing Michele.
The other was of Shabbir Ahmed, a waiter at Windows on the World,
whose wife and three children were seeking information on his
whereabouts. Whitney filmed the two families as they struggled
with the trauma and the emotions it wrought.
Lanza's estranged husband can't bring himself to explain to
Nicholas that his mother won't be coming home. Meanwhile her
sister and mother can't accept that she won't be coming home
and both fall into ill health. Through it all Nicholas continues
to believe that his mother is lost and will find her way home.
Ahmed's family is equally devastated. Eventually his son Thambir
joins Whitney's production crew and befriends Nicholas Lanza.
The boys' friendship is a light in this heartbreaking story.
"Telling Nicholas" is a poignant tale of how life shattering
this disaster was to these two families. Not only are their
stories touching and tragic but they are compounded by the fact
that these are two of thousands of heart rendering tales.
Whitney's tale is told with sensitivity and caring and is a
well-done behind-the-headlines look. "America Undercover Sundays"
airs at 10 p.m. on HBO.
the TriBeCa Grand Hotel, filmgoers shed tears yesterday
during a documentary screening about a 7-year-old boy
who lost his mother on Sept. 11.
A few blocks away on Greenwich Street, families laughed and
munched on popcorn as they browsed local vendors' tables and
watched street performers make music.
At the Tribeca Film Festival, the moods in the neighborhood
that, once upon a time, stood in the shadow of the World Trade
Center shifted, changed, wafted on a spring breeze of renewal.
The festival - chaired by actor Robert De Niro and his partner,
Jane Rosenthal, and director Martin Scorsese - appeared to be
living up to its purpose of reviving the downtown scene.
Throngs crowded the streets in numbers unseen in the eight painful
months since the collapse of the Twin Towers. Along Greenwich
Street, which served as the unofficial heart of the first-time
event, a long line of potential viewers snaked outside the box
office, hoping for the chance to land tickets to a movie, a
panel discussion, anything...At the TriBeCa Grand...people watched
a screening of the documentary "Telling Nicholas."
The impetus for the film, narrated by the director, James Ronald
Whitney, stemmed from a flier of a missing Staten Island woman
who worked at the World Trade Center. Filmed in the days after
Sept. 11, the documentary tells of a father who waited 10 days
before telling his son, Nicholas, that his mother was dead.
The documentary premieres on HBO tonight, Mother's Day.
"It was incredibly moving," said Rebekah Lee, who lives in TriBeCa.
"It shows the devastation of the families, and that's something
that I think people forget."
Whitney, the director, agreed.
"The film has to do with the loss of a parent and how a child
copes with that and how a family copes with that," Whitney said.
"You can rebuild the skyline. But you can't rebuild the infrastructure
of the family," he said.
Jamie Moore, 38, drove from the Catskills into Manhattan hoping
to see powerful documentaries such as "Telling Nicholas"
and maybe a few independent films. By midafternoon, there were
no more film tickets.
-- Margaret Ramirez
not often that I'm emotionally moved by programs that
I watch on TV. Maybe it's the male macho thing,
or more likely the fact that so much of what is presented
these days is trash.
I certainly can't say that about a documentary that I
recently watched entitled Telling Nicholas.
It is a part of HBO's America Undercover series,
and if you get a chance to see a repeat showing, or if
it ever becomes available on VHS or DVD, I highly recommend
September 11th, 2001, film maker James Ronald Whitney,
who lived just seven blocks from the World Trade
Center, began filming events surrounding the terrorist
attacks. Being forced to leave his home due
to all the dust in the area, he visited ground zero
and noticed the wall where posters of missing people
had been placed. One that caught his attention was
a picture of a mother, Michele Lanza, and her seven
year old son, Nicholas. He decided to track down
the relatives and record this tragic event through
their lives. The documentary shows us how Nicholas'
family struggled with the loss of Michele and how
Nicholas was finally told of his mother's death.
It also documents this event through the lives of
a Muslim family, whose brother/husband/father, a
waiter at the restaurant at the top of the WTC,
was also killed. The film maker brings the
two families together to share their grief.
have just celebrated another Memorial Day. Now, in addition
to remembering those who fought for our freedoms, we also
pause to reflect on the most recent of tragedies to befall
our great nation, the events of September 11th, 2001.
Something has been bothering me since about November of
last year. Although some remnants of increased patriotism
remain in our country, and we occasionally hear the phrase
never forget, I'm afraid that most of
us have indeed forgotten the atrocities committed against
our nation.‡ Although we have all been affected in some
way by the attacks, the further we are from ground zero,
the less of an impact we feel.‡ Answer honestly if 9-11
has really changed how you live your life.‡ Most of us
would have to answer, "not much".‡ The frustration lies
in trying to figure out what we can do to aid in the war
on terrorism, and once again the unfortunate answer is
"not much".‡ But one thing we can do for ourselves and
those around us is never forget.‡ And
if enough of us never forget, perhaps
something positive will come of that.
came away from viewing Telling Nicholas
with these thoughts: Those immediately impacted
by the events of September 11th, such as Nicholas'
family, and the rest of us American citizens who
witnessed the events on our television screens,
have been told that we must get on with our lives.‡
We have been told that by living our normal lives
we will be defeating those who would try to take
our American way of life away from us.‡ I believe
that is true.‡
But we can never forget what was
done to our country, to our beliefs.‡ We can never
forget what this band of terrorists, this
embodiment of evil disguised in a religion, did
to our fellow citizens, little boys like Nicholas,
pictured here. I think after viewing Telling
Nicholas, you might just feel the same way.
week Cinema Gotham attends the premiere of HBO's
documentary Telling Nicholas, the brutally honest
look at one boy's experience after losing his mother
on September 11th. With all the 9/11 tributes and
specials airing these days this is the one to watch.
8, 2002. New York City.
When I had the idea for a column centering around
New York movies I was thinking of the sort of hard-boiled
New York stories that most people associate with
this great city. Force of Evil. Sweet Smell of Success.
Dog Day Afternoon. Taxi Driver. Do the Right Thing.
Unsentimental films on tough, gritty, urban issues.
Still, I was unprepared for the bald emotion on
display in James Ronald Whitney's astonishing Telling
Nicholas, a documentary that displays such
raw pain it's almost unbearable.
subject seems deceptively obvious but still hard to imagine
filming: Two days after the cataclysmic terrorist attack
on the World Trade Center, Whitney visited a Staten Island
family that had lost a loved one. Over a period of ten
days Whitney taped their denial, their pain, and their
suffering. The film centers around the family's struggle
with how and when to tell seven year old Nicholas that
his mother is never coming home. Incredibly much of this
played out with complete candor in front of Whitney's
I read this basic synopsis before heading up to the premiere
screening of the final cut of the film at HBO's 42nd street
headquarters. Standing around the reception room with
its view of the Empire State Building, anticipating a
film that I knew would contain numerous shots of the twin
towers seemed almost weird. Still, it served as a reminder
of the enormous effect that September 11th had on the
architecture of New York. As everyone knows, the skyline
changed that day, leaving a hole that anyone who had set
their eyes on the city during the last quarter century
could clearly see. But Whitney's focus wasn't on the enormous
physical and structural damage, but rather on intimate
personal loss. "It's very easy to focus on the obvious,"
he explained the day after the screening, "that the structures
are missing. It's far more difficult to focus on the human
element and this movie does. At the end of day it's about
missing fathers and sons, mothers and daughters."
at the premiere
when he first picked up his camera he didn't have
a specific game plan of how to proceed. Having previously
made films that concentrated on how young people
deal with complex emotional issues, like the painful,
autobiographical Just, Melvin, he at least had a
basic direction. "I knew immediately that the focus
of the film would be centered around issues regarding
children, because I couldn't get the pictures out
of my head of the little kids with their parents
on the flyers that surrounded my neighborhood,"
he told me. "And I also wondered if anybody knew
how to tell a kid that mommy is dead or daddy is
was a personal reason to try to view the tragedy through
the lives of others as well. "When I was nine my father
ran off and instead of thinking 'Wow, my father just ran
off with my mom's best friend,' I kept thinking 'I gotta
make sure my mom's ok.' The same situation happened here.
It was easier to try to help these families and focus
on their pain."
His journey eventually introduced him to real people with
painful stories, but it still started with two buildings
collapsing. Right from the start Whitney shows that he
intends to pull no punches. The film repeatedly employs
shots of the towers in flames and mid collapse - all shot
by Whitney's own camera - as well as one shot of a body
falling nearly a hundred stories. The images are too disturbing
to be summarized and no amount of repetition robs them
of their power. Whitney, who's been somewhat critical
of CBS for shying away from some of the more visceral
footage shot by brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet for their
piece 9/11, is not one to sugarcoat his work. "I felt
I owed that sort of honesty to the families," he declared.
(Whitney's apartment lay in the frozen zone after
the attack and he had to vacate) and without any
work to do (his office was directly next to the
towers and was heavily damaged) Whitney found himself
searching the patchwork of "missing" flyers posted
all over the city. During a scan of the faces he
discovered friends and acquaintances Scott Sabir,
Clara Hernandez, and Gabby Waisman, all listed as
missing at the time and known to have died since.
He also noticed a photo of a woman names Michele
Lanza and her young son Nicholas and immediately
felt the bond between the two. He felt he had to
find out their story.
a phone call he headed to their Staten Island home and
found himself quickly enmeshed in their family's life.
Michele's parents Al and Ethel shared their modest Tottenville
home with their daughters Susan and Cindy as well as Cindy's
husband Dominick and their two young daughters. Michele
and Nicholas lived right up the street since she moved
up from Virginia where she had separated from husband
Bobby. As the family sat around trying out different theories
on where Michele was and who to blame for this devastation,
they quickly became complex, individual personalities
all mixed up with the emotions and confusion of those
difficult days. Hearing their theories on Islam and Muslim
New Yorkers was like having our own immediate, shell-shocked
judgments reflected back; It was a raw time and everyone
said things that were based more on pure emotion and confusion
than thoughtfulness and understanding.
After the screening I spoke with Al, Nicholas' grandfather
and Michele's father, who made a strong impression in
the film. He was thankful that audiences had the opportunity
to see an honest depiction of what his family went through,
even if the finished film was the furthest thing from
his mind at the time. "We weren't thinking about [the
camera]. We were concerned about our daughter," he explained.
"When you have a child you'd cut off your arm for that
child. You grow up with them and they grow up with you.
There is always that close bond." In his own way Nicholas
expressed this feeling in the film as well. At one point
he heartbreakingly states "If my mommy had an injury,
I would have an injury, too."
Thanbir, and Jeba Ahmed
spending some time with Michele's family, Whitney
introduced a different family altogether: A Muslim
family from Bangladesh, whose patriarch Shabbir
Ahmed was a waiter at Windows on the World, the
famed restaurant at the top of tower one. Their
pain was just as great but it seemed mixed with
the knowledge that many of their neighbors would
blame them in part for what happened. Thanbir, the
sixteen year old son, in particular showed a brave
face, eloquently memorializing his father and hoping
for fair treatment for his family. Whitney's attempt
at even-handedness could have come off as manipulative
but his subtle handling of this tough subject matter
coupled with the quiet pride and strength of the
Ahmed family helped this sequence achieve real compassion.
fact, when I spoke with Thanbir he seemed equally impressed
his family's bravery. "Right after the attack we understood
that there would be cameras and reporters coming to the
house," the high school student told me. "We expected
it. The family reacted quite amazingly. I expected them
to be shy, but they were candid and outgoing."
By the time Whitney shot the Ahmed family they seemed
to have a strong grasp on the truth: That Shabbir wasn't
coming home. Michele's family wasn't quite so far along
in their grieving process. In fact, for most of the ten
days that Whitney had his camera on the family they still
held out hope that Michele would return. It wasn't until
Bobby finally told Nicholas that that his mother had died
that it became fully real for the rest of the family.
According to Whitney, "The reason is that Dr. Gilda [a
noted therapist and friend of the filmmaker's] explained
to Ethel that Robert was finally going to tell Nicholas
and you must not for the well-being of the child express
some notion of a miracle, that you're still hoping that
Michele will walk through that door because that conflict
would possibly prove detrimental. Fortunately the family
took her advice and from that point on they never referred
to her in present tense."
were plenty of difficult sequences: The playing
of the last message that a panicked Michele left
on her sister's answering machine disturbed the
still hopeful family. Ethel passed out when she
saw a World Trade Center postcard on Michele's desk.
A conversation about who should take care of Nicholas
turned ugly. But the emotional centerpiece of the
film comes when Bobby finally sits down with his
son and tries to explain that his mother is dead.
members discuss Telling Nicholas
reacts in an incredible way that manages to be strong
and vulnerable at the same time. He pats his father on
the back and alternates between tears and inquisitiveness.
It is to Whitney's credit that this scene, shot from a
distance, doesn't feel exploitative. It is in fact a very
effective way for those who haven't been able to express
their own sense of grief to understand the process vicariously.
Although Whitney viewed the families from a far more intimate
vantage point than even the most emotionally engaged audience
ever will, he saw that scene as the moment that the film
built towards. "No one's ever heard a child's reaction
in real time like that and it's as comforting as it is
discomforting to observe his defense mechanisms kick-in."
Whitney described the moment that Nicholas asked his grieving
father if they could go out the next day and get him a
new mommy as "the most painful thing for a family to hear
because it almost implies that they are fairly easy to
replace when in fact the child is simply attempting to
survive emotionally and doesn't know how he can do that
without a mommy. He's in pain and he doesn't want to be
in pain. All he cares about is a band-aid right then.
He doesn't think as far as surgery." This reaction of
Nicholas', which was part of one of the most complex emotional
reactions ever caught on video, was so raw that Whitney
didn't even describe it as honest. "Honesty implies some
control over thought and I don't think there's any control
going on there. It's just streaming consciousness."
a series of festival screenings on the horizon (including
the Tribeca Film Festival, which will be covered
in the next Cinema Gotham), Whitney was glad to
see the film having a cathartic effect for audiences.
"One of the most amazing things to me is the presence
of Michele Lanza when I listen to the family talk
about her life and watch her in archival footage.
It's incredible to see how alive she was and even
more incredible to see, even in her absence, how
impactful she is on everyone who has watched this
film. Amazingly, in a bittersweet way that has to
bring some solace to the family. They understand
that it's a very important film."
is no question that they feel the film can only have a
positive effect. When asked how he thought the film turned
out Al wasn't even sure what to say. "I can't answer that.
I lived it. And not just me but three thousand other mothers,
fathers, husbands and wives." Thanbir seemed to take some
comfort in the notion that so many people at the screening
were so moved by his family's story. "The fact that the
majority of people there were from New York means everyone
lost somebody or knew someone who lost someone and seeing
the strength [the families] had helps them go on with
their lives." Telling Nicholas will have its HBO premiere
on Sunday, May 19.