When Donn Marshall heard that a plane had hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, he raced to the daycare centre to find his children had been evacuated — but his wife Shelley was nowhere to be found.
Featured in the Yard 44, NBC News Studios film Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11 (streaming on Peacock in the U.S. and NOW TV in the U.K. ahead of the BAFTA TV Awards), which was part of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, Marshall looks back at his raw emotions shortly after the attacks and the death of this wife, and we see how he healed 20 years later.
In 2002, New York City and Berlin-based artist Ruth Sergel set up a plywood video booth and invited people, including eye witnesses of the attacks, from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, PA to share their experiences, with the participants totally in control of the recording.
In Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, filmmakers Bjørn Johnson and David Belton show raw footage from 2002 and allow some of the original participants to go through that unfiltered personal testimony all over again, almost 20 years later.
Marshall is a historian and knows the importance of oral history to get a first-hand take on events. When the opportunity came for him to go into the wooden video booth, he wanted to participate in the oral history of the historic day, as well having something about 9/11 for his kids to access, which ended up being "incredibly therapeutic" for him.
“Along the way I started kind of opening up to this empty black cube that I was sitting in,” he explained.
“I kind of knew what I was getting into and it felt almost comfortable to go back into that box and look at that camera on the wall, and just start talking about things that had happened, and to take inventory.”
Additionally, Marshall identified that being able to watch Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11 and seeing the other people who had gone through a similar experience was a "liberating moment."
I'd kind of kept any notion I had that I was resilient in a closet and this let me open the door and kind of take a little bit of pride in being able to raise two great kids and build a good life.Donn Marshall
In the documentary, Marshall shared in 2002 that when he went to clean out the family car he found a note from Shelley that read, “we have only a finite number of days on this earth, make them extraordinary and fill them with passion.”
He maintains that those works have been a “guiding principle” for him to build a better life after 9/11.
What makes Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11 so captivating and unique is that it is really a documentary that showcases human resilience, rather than other 9/11 films that focus on the destruction and the news cycle. Marshall identified that the “wound of 9/11 is still raw” but to have people who were so personally affected by it tell you that “they’re OK” is impactful.
“Being in that company was just such a wonderful thing, to be in the company of these other people who were so resilient and who, like me, tried to move forward and honour 9/11 at the same time,” Marshall said. “We can't forget it, it's with us, so how do we…use it to live better lives.”
'9/11 was a day of inhumanity but it was also a day of incredible humanity'
In Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, Marshall states that he wanted his kids to be taught by a Muslim teacher at their school because “all their life they’re going to hear that Muslims killed their mother,” which speaks to the division and discrimination that we saw after 9/11, and still see now. The documentary and particularly Marshall's testimony shines a light on how it was really togetherness, not othering people, that helped after the tragic attack.
“I kind of anticipated that there might be some pushback, even from family members, over a Muslim teacher, but the kids needed to learn early on that they are people, just like us,” he said.
“Ms. Ahmed was an amazing teacher. She had them both reading at the second or third grade level by the time they left kindergarten… She changed their lives so much for the better. I mean, I can't thank her enough.”
Marshall likens it to Japanese Americans in internment camps after World War II, which was wrong and an "overreaction."
“We turn our back on human resources, on our humanity when we put all these people in one box,” Marshall said. “They want us to fight one another, that's not what we need to do.”
“I tell people that 9/11 was a day of inhumanity but it was also a day of incredible humanity.”
Marshall remembers when he was waiting outside as a stretcher bearer on Sept. 11, 2001, watching the fire burning, and there was a firefighter coming out of the gap. The firefighter had an American flag, he planted it on the ground, stepped back and saluted, and there was complete silence, and then everybody started cheering.
“Every colour, every creed, every religion was there and they were cheering because we were there to help people, and that's something I cling to,” Marshall said. “We can pull together.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, which has highlighted inequalities across the world and in our own communities, in addition to frequent conflicts and debates over vaccinations and other public health measures, Marshall stressed that we’re “failing the test” on COVID-19.
“It's just sad that 20 years ago, people drove cross-country to be at Ground Zero to help out, they gave blood, they enlisted, they gave their lives as a result of 9/11 and today, we can't be bothered to wear a mask, it's discouraging,” he said. “Hopefully this next generation will be able to be more respectful of the individual.”
[Sept. 11, 2001] shows you, it's just too easy to kill a lot of people… We have a choice, we can abuse each other at our peril, or we can try to understand each other and get along with each other.Donn Marshall
‘Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11’ is streaming on Peacock in the U.S. and NOW TV in the U.K. ahead of the BAFTA TV Awards