Justice in Reel Time

School of Law Professor Marilyn Berger turns filmmaker for latest work on 9/11

Written by Tina Potterf
Photography by Heath Braun
June 5, 2011

Marilyn Berger is known for a long and distinguished career as a law professor. With the release of the new documentary film, Out of the Ashes: 9/11, she is increasingly getting a name for herself as a filmmaker. Berger, who has taught law for 31 years, is the writer, co-director and executive producer of Out of the Ashes: 9/11, which examines the legal, moral and ethical ramifications of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. The Fund was established 11 days after the terrorist attacks to compensate victims and their families.

Out of the Ashes is the latest film by Berger, who is director of the School of Law's Films for Justice Institute, which she created in 1995. Her other cinematic works include the educational documentaries Lessons from Woburn: The Untold Stories with Henry Wigglesworth, The Rules of Procedure and Conduct and Settlement.

Out of the Ashes tackles issues around the Fund, including interviews with affected families and individuals, lawyers and legal experts, and Kenneth Feinberg, the Special Master for the Fund. The documentary was recently finished and released earlier this year.

...On Sept. 11, 2001, they all got up that morning, said their goodbyes and we never saw them again.
-Marilyn Berger, Professor, School of Law 

Its genesis began two years after the terrorist attacks when Berger visited Ground Zero while in New York City for a conference. The keynote speaker at the conference was Feinberg. As Berger recalls, he "told haunting stories about 9/11 families, the impact of the Fund on their lives and its uniqueness in 9/11 history." Moved by what she heard, Berger approached Feinberg about documenting the program and his work on film. Initially, he was resistant—it took a year, and many e-mails and phone calls later, before he came on board. The support of friends, family and colleagues was integral in getting the film made, says Berger, who also was helped along the way by nearly two dozen law students, and former deans and current faculty of the School of Law.

Nothing could have prepared her for the filmmaking process ahead. "It consumed my life for seven years…," says Berger. "A roller coaster ride, indeed, but a journey that has constituted an incredibly momentous seven years."

The team behind the scenes working with Berger includes two Emmy Award winners, co-director Sarah Holt and cinematographer Erich Roland, along with narrator Charles Ogletree, composer and sound specialist Dan Ring and video editor/graphic designer Pamela Taylor Waldman.

The documentary showcases seven families and individuals whose lives were directly affected by 9/11 and the Victim Compensation Fund. Those who are featured came after more than a year and a half of combing through names and contacts, plus countless interviews. Many of the stories Berger first read about in a New York Times series on 9/11 victims. "The thing that united them before 9/11 was that on Sept. 11, 2001, they all got up that morning, said their goodbyes and we never saw them again," Berger says.

There's Felicia Dunn Jones, a civil rights lawyer whose office was a block from the World Trade Center. When the Twin Towers crumbled she ingested the dust that hailed down on New York City. Five months later, she died from sarcoidosis, an inflammation of the lungs believed to be caused by inhalation of dust. She was 42 years old. Another is that of Melodie Homer, who lost her husband LeRoy, who was a co-pilot on United Flight 93. The documentary also includes the challenges families and partners faced. One such case is that of Margaret Cruz, who lost her domestic partner of 18 years, Pat McAneney, an accountant working in one of the towers. Cruz had to plead her case to Feinberg because the couple was not registered as domestic partners and McAneney died without a will.

"There was a huge responsibility that we weren't going to exploit them," Berger says. "For a lot of them it was the first time they opened up and agreed to do [a project] like this."

The film will be screened and made available for future use at law schools and conferences throughout the United States. The director's take on the final cut of the film: "Out of the Ashes: 9/11 is an objective piece of documentary work," says Berger, and a documentary that allows viewers to come to their own conclusions about the Victim Compensation Fund and if justice was served.
To view a trailer for Out of the Ashes: 9/11 visit www.outoftheashes911.com 

Marilyn Berger dedicated seven years to the making of the documentary, Out of the Ashes: 9/11.