Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
When Moze Mossanen first heard about an upcoming musical focusing on 9/11 that his friend Lee McDougall had been cast in, his initial reaction was skepticism: “I thought, ‘Gee, that’s a tough sell. I wonder who’d be interested?’.
The musical was Come From Away. “Well, it turns out that La Jolla was very interested, with great reviews and sellout crowds,” Mossanen recalls. “The same thing happened a short while later when the show opened in Seattle. And then I heard that the show was going to go to Broadway, and I thought ‘there’s a story here; a story worth telling’.”
That story became the captivating full-length HBO Canada feature documentary You Are Here: A Come From Away Story, which Mossanen wrote and directed. Fully engrossing in its own right, You Are Here is also a companion piece to Come From Away, providing a more expansive and intimate backstory of the events, people and place that the musical portrays. It’s the broader story of the 9,000 people of Gander, Newfoundland, who cared for nearly 7,000 passengers left stranded when their planes were forced to land outside US airspace after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Mossanen’s process began with his 28-page treatment of the story for the documentary. In it – before shooting a single interview or locating a single new piece of video – he spelled out exactly how the film would end – in New York City at the 2017 Broadway opening of Come From Away, when Gander residents walked onto the Schoenfeld Theater stage to take their bows alongside their theatrical counterparts. From there, he worked backwards to the film’s opening – the attack, and the descent of the planes on Gander.
“The film very lightly dramatizes some of the events, but our visual researchers were able to find a treasure trove of archival footage that illustrates the story in You Are Here” says Mossanen. “It was a long and painstaking act of looking for this material, but some amazing things came up, like the actual home movies taken on the planes when they landed and waited on the tarmac in Gander.” And like most documentaries, a lot of great material had to be left on the cutting room floor. Fortunately, associate editor Mikey Lalonde was able to pull some of this material together into short videos which are available for viewing on the HBO Canada You Are Here page. “They’re wonderful and worth a look if you want to know more about the characters inside (and outside) of the film.”
For fans of the musical, the film adds tremendous depth and validation. You Are Here proves that, despite the compressed plot of the musical – the events of the 5 days are distilled into a fast-moving, fluid 100-minutes – it is a faithful representation of these remarkable characters and events. Yes, there was a bus drivers’ strike in Gander at the time. Yes, Mayor Claude Elliot was enjoying a morning beverage at the local Tim Horton’s when the town got the news of 9/11. Yes, two of the passengers unexpectedly fell in love. And yes and yes and yes: the specific individuals the musical revolves around have been depicted in a factually and emotionally true way. With personal interviews and contextual footage, the documentary offers a deeper insight into these characters, whom audiences of Come From Away feel like they already know, while also chronicling the evolution of the musical.
Years later, the Ganderites remain sincere and hospitable. When the crew went to Gander to shoot the film, Mossanen knew they were going to capture a story about kindness and generosity, but had not anticipated that the film crew would experience the same warm welcome and hospitality as the strangers and plane people who touched down on 9/11. During the first week, the Mayor of Gander, Claude Elliot and Beulah Cooper (a Gander resident featured in the film) prepared a traditional “Jiggs Dinner” for the entire nine-member crew. “I mean, which city can you go to where the mayor cooks you dinner!?” smiles Mossanen. And this was not a one-off: a few days later, the Mayor of nearby Appleton and his wife, Derm and Dianne Flynn, hosted the hungry crew to a fish dinner at their own home. “We were all so touched and so grateful to have people look after us, making us feel safe and at home,” he says. “It’s an experience that I’ll never forget.”
Mossanen and the crew’s personal experience validated his initial motivation for the documentary project: “What really propelled me to commit to this project – and when you start a project, you have to really ‘commit’ to it, as it’ll take three to four years from beginning to end – was the disturbing political climate and discourse in North America at the beginning of 2016. I was shocked at the emergence of a new wave of intolerance, xenophobia and racism. There was talk of banning Muslims, of building walls, and basically turning the clock back on decades of civil rights.” While most of the bile was emanating from the American election, it gave voice and encouragement to factions in Canada, as well. Making this film was Mossanen’s way of saying “no, this is NOT who we are. We are better than this . . . The Newfoundlanders showed us that. They showed us what we all have within our hearts – compassion, kindness and generosity.”
The heart of You Are Here beats steadily with the fundamental kindness of these people, who demonstrated compassion, curiosity and hospitality 17 years ago at a terrifying and dangerous moment in our history . . . and who continue to demonstrate it, despite the rising tide of suspicion and xenophobia across North America and around the globe.The art of the film is in the way it gets to the reality of the Gander community’s story, and illuminates friendships born out of tragedy which endure today. And it keeps this reality front and centre, as their story is being translated into the art form of a musical. The viewer’s gaze is trained on the real people telling their story in their words (including their reactions as the musical is being constructed) and then on the real people mounting the musical, and their experiences with the community, which echo those of the passengers, and anticipate those of Mosanen and the crew.
You Are Here provides a marvellously strong sense of the place, as well as its people. In Come From Away, The Rock is conjured skilfully by the characters’ speeches and songs. In You Are Here, The Rock is a character. We see the forested, rocky landscape of Newfoundland. We appreciate the distance to get there, and the distance between communities. And we gain a deeper appreciation for these people as a product of their rugged environment. Their charity, their humility, and their warmth are in a way the primal response of a community huddling together for survival at the windswept eastern extreme of the continent. In this beautiful yet hard terrain, their hearts, their sense of humor, and the “compassion, kindness and generosity” that Mossanen sought to convey have grown strong and deep. It’s sobering how intolerance finds so much easier purchase in less extreme settings.
Perhaps it’s for this reason that Come From Away so quickly evolved from a workshop at the Sheridan College’s Canadian Music Theatre Project in 2012 into a global phenomenon. Four productions are now on stages around the world – one of which sees Lee McDougall continuing his run on Broadway. A fifth production is readying to open this summer in Melbourne, Australia. There is even a movie adaptation in the works.
Yet as You Are Here clearly shows, the people who inspired this sensation remain unaffected by the fame – and the growth in tourism – prompted by these multiple productions. They remain charmingly taken aback that answering the call of necessity proved to be a musical-worthy topic. In fact, in You Are Here, Mayor Eliot recounts how he first heard that Irene Sankoff was coming to Gander with husband and co-creator David Hein to conduct interviews with passengers and residents on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, with the goal of creating a musical . . .and he worried the enterprise would land her on welfare.
Like Come From Away before it, You Are Here has earned acclaim and affection since its premiere on HBO Canada and CraveTV on September 11, 2018. It won the Audience Choice Award for Best Feature Documentary at CineFest in October, and became the highest-rated original program on HBO Canada. Since then, it has earned five 2019 Canadian Screen Award nominations, including Best Documentary Program. Its US premiere at the Boulder International Film Festival this month was greeted with a standing ovation. Judging by You Are Here’s far-reaching impact and enthusiastic reception, the film delivers on Mossanen’s desire to counter our divisive cultural climate by reminding us of this remarkable proof of our infinite capacity for selflessness. Mossanen even pronounces himself “changed” by the process of making You Are Here. Though he may not himself have had occasion to “shelter strangers from faraway countries” in his home, making the film has made him more aware of his own need to be more compassionate in everyday life toward people he does not know — as well as the “friends, family and associates” he holds closer.
Mossanen is an award-winning writer, director and producer, widely acclaimed for his prolific body of work. Yet even so, You Are Here’s deep resonance with audiences has surprised him. “In all honesty, I had no idea that You Are Here would have the impact that it seems to be having. The emotional response, the standing ovations – it’s all overwhelming,” he admits. “I knew the film was telling a great story and bringing to light the real heroes behind this massive cultural event called Come From Away, but to have audiences come up to you with tears in their eyes, hold you in their arms, and tell you how much the film meant to them, that was beyond my wildest dreams. (OK, perhaps I dared dream it in private or in the dark, but I’d never say it out loud!)”
Some of the strongest responses have come from younger viewers of the film: “many of them explain how they’re learning about 9/11 in their history classes, but never realized the scope or breadth of the tragedy until they see our film.” Mossanen finds these young people incredibly attuned to the themes of empathy, love and compassion portrayed in the film. A scene near the end of the film brings the Ganderites to Ground Zero in New York, where they speak, and shed tears with, New York City police and firefighters about the events and emotions of 9/11. It’s a conversation between first responders – the American heroes who faced the fall of the twin towers in New York, and the unwitting Canadian heroes who faced the onslaught of thousands of disoriented passengers with such grace and kindness.
For young and old alike, You Are Here is an uplifting story, a compelling vehicle to learn about Canada’s role in the 9/11 tragedy, and a lesson that heroes often come in the form of regular people who are moved to caring. And should it prompt you to take positive action in your own life and the lives of others, then it has fulfilled its higher purpose.
“We couldn’t be more proud or happier.”
News You Can Use
What: You Are Here: A Come From Away Story, an MDF Production
Editor: Cathy Gulkin; Director of Photography: Ian Kerr; Original Music: Philip Strong and Laurel MacDonald; Executive Producer: Bill House; Producer: Peter Gentile; Writer and Director: Moze Mossanen
Who: Audiences of all ages
When and Where: Streaming on CraveTV; Run Time: 84 minutes
*To find a screening in a theatre, click here.
*In addition to local screenings, You Are Here: A Come From Away Story will screen across Canada on National Film Day, April 17, 2019.
Curriculum Connections: Language, Social Studies, History, Geography, Health, The Arts
Themes: Kindness and Caring; Relationships, Community and Belonging; Well-Being and Resilience; Language, Tradition and Identity
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019