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Astoria filmmaker documents Sept. 11 anguish

In the first minute of Dega Omar's documentary film "9/12," a distraught man who just fled the 50-story Citicorp building in Long Island City describes having watched what looked like a missile crash into the second tower of the World Trade Center.

"It looked like a silver object going very fast that hit the World Trade Center and blew up," he says in a brief conversation that begins underground in a No. 7 subway station and continues inside a nearby restaurant, minutes after he fled his 18th-floor office without waiting to learn what the silver object actually was. "As you watch this, you'll know," he tells an imagined audience through the camera.

But Omar's film does not provide answers. The Astoria filmmaker never shows footage of the two airplanes crashing into each of the Twin Towers nor does she focus on the buildings during the interminable moments they came crashing to the ground. Her camera is trained on eyes and mouths, arms flailing through the air and hands clasped together - the reactions of people standing on the East River shoreline in Long Island City, watching the horror unfold. She captures people struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible.

"I didn't know what I was making, I was just shooting things. I didn't really know if I should focus on the buildings or talk to people," said Omar, a 36-year-old filmmaker who emigrated from Somalia two decades ago to study at Antioch College in Ohio. "I thought, 'There are people here, I need to focus on these people.' Because I'm not an American, the building didn't mean anything to me."

Omar fetched her camera as soon as she learned about the disaster while dropping her son off at his school at the base of the Citylights building, which sits on the East River across the water from the United Nations.

"I didn't even think about it. I just ran back home, got my camera," she said during a recent interview in her Astoria home, where she lives with her husband and two children. She is seven months pregnant with her third child. "I couldn't plan the things I shot - it happened as I was just out in the street."

But nearly another year elapsed before she spliced hours of footage into a short documentary called "9/12," a film that is not so much about the disaster itself but the fear, confusion and discourse that emerged in its aftermath.

"When I felt I could edit, it was when I felt it was over for me," Omar said. "I was really too in the story. I was afraid myself. I couldn't be objective or detached to really think about it."

Much of Omar's footage is raw, the camera bobbing up and down like a home video. Her lens is dirty, speckled with flecks of dust and dirt that glimmer in the bright sunlight that bore down on the city even as smoke clouded the sky. The picture sometimes gives off an eerie shade of blue because she had no time to balance the color before starting to record.

But instead of detracting from the film, the flaws that crop up in the images almost add another layer of credibility. The urgency of the camera's jarring movements matches the sense of bewilderment and confusion that swept over the city, an emotion Omar's film tries to capture.

The date 9/12 symbolizes for Omar the city's reaction to the terrorist attacks, something she documents from the first minutes after the planes hit to the anthrax scare that swept over the city two months later. In between she shows footage from an earthquake that hit Long Island City in October, jarring people awake as they feared the worst - another act of terrorism.

"The feeling of New Yorkers for me was, we had no idea what was going on," Omar said. "We're thrown in the middle of this war zone and we don't know who we're fighting."

In less than 30 minutes, the documentary weaves from the East River images of Sept. 11 itself to the responses that came out later: flags sold on the sidewalk in Manhattan, debates springing up among hundreds of people gathered in Union Square, anti-war protests in the streets, prayers in mosques and reactions from Middle Eastern store owners. It is driven by dialogue, by reactions that range from a Christian woman who preached peace after praying at a mosque with her Saudi Arabian friends to a pair of men debating whether an international court could bring the perpetrators to justice.

"People were really talking about politics," she said. "These discussions erupted, and everyone who was walking about gathered around."

Around the time of the first anniversary of Sept. 11, Omar sent the film to a festival in Egypt and a university professor in the United Kingdom teaching a class about the terrorist attack. She hopes the dialogues recorded on screen spark discourse in wider circles across the globe.

"I want it to be a historical documentation of what happened, for it to be used for political discussion," she said. "What happened was too huge for people to be told what to think, what to say."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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