On Wednesday night, Cyrus Nowrasteh spoke to a small crowd in McGraw Auditorium on the topic of creative expression and censorship in the media in a speech entitled “Creative Expression and Its Suppresion”. He is the writer and the producer of the docudrama “The Path to 9/11”, which aired last September on ABC.
Phillip Brest’09 introduced Nowrasteh as the first speakers in a series of lectures sponsored by the Sigma Phi fraternity’s Lawrence Tanenbaum Distinguished Speakers Fellowship.
According to Nowrasteh, 28 million viewers tuned into watch “The Path to 9/11”, in part fueled by the controversy surrounding its content. Yet, he says the film came close to not airing because many critics considered it at an affront to the Clinton administration and its handling of events leading up to 9/11.
Much of the controversy originated before the film had even aired.
“People were condemning me who hadn’t even seen the film,” he said.
Even though it aired last year, he said that the DVD has still not been released, which establishes a dangerous precedent for the future.
As part of the backlash against the film, Nowrasteh claimed that he received death threats from as far away as France and that the police frequently visited his home to ensure his safety.
Nowrasteh said he came up with the idea for the film after reading The 9/11 Commission Report and found that it only went as far back as 1998. For the movie, he formed the narrative starting back in 1993 when the first World Trade Center attacks occurred up to the day of 9/11.
One of the main problems he encountered with critics is they attacked the film as a documentary, not as a docudrama. The difference between the two is that a documentary is perceived as more factual evidence as opposed to a docudrama which uses historical events in forming a dramatic narrative.
Ironically, Nowrasteh said that current documentaries are even more propagandistic than his film. Specifically referring to Michael Moore, he called him “a pioneer, regardless if you believe his films, who has created a huge audience for documentaries.”
He detailed the difficulties of trying to weave eight and half years of history that spans 4 continents into a 6 hour miniseries. Even during filming he faced scrutiny from both the left and the right.
“Maybe it’s too soon to film they said. It criticizes the government. Why do it? I felt it was overdue and it was an event worthy of examination so we can learn from our mistakes and failures to be wiser. The question is… What do you owe history” he asked.
Despite the stark portrayal of the Clinton and Bush administration, Nowrasteh reserved the harshest criticism for enemies.
Before the series aired, he had to annotate every scene in the script with reference to at least 2 different sources. If there were conflicting accounts of an event, he chose the version that best fit the line of the story, reminding the audience that every scene had at least 2 sources.
He said, “I am certain there is no historic certainty, only historical probability… What likely occurred and what we can find to support it. We have to conflate—it’s part of dramatic license. ”
During the lecture, he showed an unedited version of one of the more controversial clips in the series which featured former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger refusing to authorize former CIA Director George Tenet’s request to take out Bin Laden when he was within sight of US operations.
Nowrasteh said that numerous people came forward after the film’s release to testify about the accuracy of the events he depicted including Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Al-Qaeda unit.
“It was good they came forward and provided validation to these events. My credibility was called into question” he explained.
Negative publicity continues to surround the miniseries, further preventing the DVD from being released as distributors are worried about the ensuing backlash. However, he said one of the biggest betrayals occurred not from a pundit who had not seen the movie, rather one of the movie’s main actors, Harvey Keitel. Nowrasteh said Keitel openly spoke out against the film upon its release.
Ultimately, Nowrasteh concluded that “when something big happens in the media, people tend to believe things at face. . .You find out who your real friends and family are.”
Overall, many reacted positively to the lecture and were encouraged to look further into the controversy surrounding some of the implications in the film.
“I have never heard of this video before or some of these facts, but I’m more motivated to look further into this subject. It’s interesting that without the backing of a big corporation, it’s hard to get all facts…you only hear what the major media says,” said Dan Mann ’11.
Ithaca College freshmen Hillary Beson explained, “I have a good friend whose dad was killed in 9/11 and I only knew about issues that the newspaper wrote about. It’s still a touchy subject, but I would be interested to see what she has to say after viewing this film with her.”