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"Rebirth" review: Story of renewal in the wake of Sept. 11

Director/Producer Jim Whitaker, right, talks with "Rebirth" subjects Tim Brown, left, and Tanya Villanueva-Tepper during the Showtime portion of the 2011 Summer TCA Tour held Aug. 4, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Frederick M. Brown

(CBS) Notable among the films, documentaries, TV movies and literary works created in the wake of Sept. 11 is "Rebirth," a documentary slated for release just days before the tenth anniversary of the event that devastated the lives of thousands and forever changed the way we view the world.

Directed by Jim Whitaker, the documentary tracks for nearly a decade the journeys of five individuals whose lives were shattered on that day in 2001.

Complete coverage: 9/11 anniversary

Whitaker lost his mother six months before Sept. 11 and it was following a visit to ground zero a short time after the attacks that the idea of "Rebirth" was galvanized.

Out of the carnage and remnants of twisted metal came the notion of renewal and regeneration, the idea that a site immortalized for the horror that unfolded there might one day become associated with new life and new beginnings.

Ling Young, a Chinese woman badly burned while at work in one of the towers, is lucky to be alive. The documentary followed her painful surgeries to treat massive burns to her face and body.

Nicholas is a teenager who lost his mother, an employee at Lehman Brothers. His journey is to learn as much as he can about what his mom was like and to chronicle the impact of her death on the family she left behind. In one of the most compelling moments of the film, Nicholas tells us with raw emotion what his mother's loss did to him.

Tanya's story reveals the swirl of unending despair she found herself enveloped in after her fiance, a New York City firefighter, died in the attacks. Two other pieces document the last moments of first responders, one through the eyes of a man who lost his firefighter brother and best friend, and the other through a firefighter who survived while his best friend and colleague did not.

First-hand accounts of how these subjects learned of their losses stands out as a time capsule of events.

"Rebirth" will be released theatrically in Los Angeles, New York  and Boston on Aug. 31 before being broadcast on Sept. 11 on Showtime.

Whitaker, who was president of motion pictures for Imagine Entertainment before he struck out on his own to helm Whitaker Entertainment, says the film is about moving forward and finding hope, something he says each of the subjects has managed to do in his or her own way.

He conducted the interviews at intervals from 2002-2009 and says throughout filming, the documentary unfolded in a very organic way.

He says he was conscious of the fact that he wanted to let the natural journeys and evolution of his subjects dictate where the film went and spoke of the feeling of freedom he felt in not knowing where or how any of the stories would end.

Use of multiple cameras stationed at ground zero captured months and months of footage and helped document the passage of time. Clever cutting back and forth between subjects ensured the big picture was not lost in the details of any one character's journey.

Whitaker's film is not just compelling viewing; it serves as a valuable historical record for future generations.

For those of us who witnessed or were in any way impacted by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, it is a lesson, reminding us that from the throes of despair can rise the magnificence of new beginnings. It stands as a testament to the world that those we lost that day did not go quietly, nor did they go in vain.

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