Critics' Corner

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"Telling Nicholas" has been featured on (to name a few): 

Talk Back Live

CNN fn

Fox & Friends

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Video Clips that discuss James Ronald Whitney's work on "Telling Nicholas" (quicktime player required for viewing):

Oprah Winfrey
Inside Edition

Video Clips that discuss other works or the entire filmography of James Ronald Whitney:

Independent Spirit Awards
Rex Reed & other Critics
Roger Ebert
Television Clip Montage (CNN, Jenny Jones, The View, NBC, NY1, Fox, Inside Edition, Roger Ebert, Oprah Winfrey)
The View
What Critics have to say

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The Oprah Show
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...


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...


James said he felt a connection between Michelle and Nicholas. A connection so deep he felt compelled to visit Michelle's family.


James ended up spending the next ten days with them as they continued to cling to hope that Michelle would be found.


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.


After ten days with all hope gone Nicholas's father had to tell him the unthinkable, that his mother was never coming home.


Like Nicholas thousands of children heard that heartbreaking news. "Telling Nicholas" can be seen this Sunday, May 19th at 10 pm on HBO.

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Time Magazine cover

    Time Magazine logo
    May 13, 2002

Truth and Its Consequences
In 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.
photo of Nicholas
"I THINK SHE'S IN NEW JERSEY": Shielded from the truth by his protective family, Nicholas, 7, created fantasies to rationalize his mother's disappearance.

But 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 a helicopter.

Michele's 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.

Michele's 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.

In 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

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May 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.


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.


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.


Wow... That's Inside Edition we'll see you next time.
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Rex Reed logo New York Observer logo
"At 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

Telling Nicholas

(Documentary -- HBO; Sun., May 19, 10 p.m.)

Taped in New York by Fire Island Films. Produced, written, directed and edited by James Ronald Whitney.

Documentary 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.

While 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Gradually, 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.

Whitney 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.

Whitney 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 dead.

While 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.

From 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.

Whitney 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.

Daily News logo

four 4 OUT OF 4 STARS!
The Daily News

    About a Boy - & 9/11

Davis Bianculli photo "Telling 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 that lead.
The 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 it.

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.

Nicholas photo
Getting Personal: Nicholas Lanza, of 'Telling Nicholas'

Whitney, 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.

For 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.

At that point, every photo on that wall, and on every other wall like it, had a story to tell.

What Whitney did that was so rare, and so rewarding from a filmmaking sense, was to follow that photo, and that thread, wherever it went.

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 and resiliency.

"Telling Nicholas" is a documentary with a heart, and a heartbeat, that I doubt I'll ever forget.
TV Guide magazine cover Telling Nicholas
85 min.

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.
Rating: TV-PG
Category: Documentary
Director: James Ronald Whitney

Release Year: 2002

Show Times (Check your local listings)

by Jessica Winter, Anthony Kaufman, and Michael Atkinson
May 14, 2002

The 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 for complete listings). The jury for best fiction feature: Barry Levinson, Frances McDormand, Kevin Spacey, and, um, Janet Maslin...

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

Telling Nicholas' an Island story of 9/11 heartbreak
HBO 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
An 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 their loss.

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 Manhattan.

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 attacks.

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 and Poland.

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 a home.

"[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 remember Michele."

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.
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Terror, loss, and restoring faith
By Suzanne C. Ryan, Globe Staff, 5/11/2002
The 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 towers.

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 cream.
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May 10, 2002Charleston, SC
The Post and Courier
'Telling Nicholas:' Personal tales of 9/11
HBO 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.
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New York Newsday May 19, 2002
At 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
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Telling Nicholas
It's 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 it.
On 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.
We 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.
I 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. Never forget.
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This 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.

May 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.
The 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 lens.
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."

James Ronald Whitney
at the premiere

But 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 dead."
There 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.
Displaced (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.

Michele and Nicholas
After 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."

Shabbir, Thanbir, and Jeba Ahmed
After 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.
In 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."
There 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.

Audience members discuss Telling Nicholas
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."

Al and Nicholas
With 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."
There 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.
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   © 2001-03 James Ronald Whitney
See the Web sites for the director's other films: Just, Melvin, and Games People Play
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