Telling Nicholas' an Island story of 9/11 heartbreak
HBO film focuses on a family's struggle to tell 7-year-old Tottenville boy his mother was lost in WTC attack
Wednesday, May 08, 2002

An estimated 10,000 children lost a parent in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Thousands of these children were old enough to comprehend the tragedy. Thousands more had to be told of their loss.

An obsession with the prospect of bearing that burden is what led filmmaker James Ronald Whitney to the Tottenville home of Michele Lanza, a 36-year-old mother of one who worked on the 97th floor of Tower 2.

The result is "Telling Nicholas" -- a gut-wrenching and intimate documentary that chronicles the suffering of one family and its struggle to break the news to 7-year-old Nicholas Lanza that his mother is dead.

A private screening for family members, friends and some members of the media was held last night at HBO headquarters in Midtown Manhattan.

Unlike CBS's "9/11," which celebrated the hundreds of firefighters who died at the World Trade Center, "Telling Nicholas" delves into the emotional and social intricacies of Sept. 11 by tracing the story of two fliers posted for missing victims.

Among the thousands of fliers that wallpapered New York City within hours of the World Trade Center collapse was one seeking information about Mrs. Lanza. The photo, which depicted a tanned and vibrant woman hugging her bright-eyed son on a recent trip to DisneyWorld, somehow stood out for Whitney.

"It was the very first photo I saw of a mother and child. There were a lot of fathers with their kids, but not many mothers," Whitney said in a recent interview. "I immediately started thinking, how are these children going to be told their parent, and in some cases both parents, will not be coming home?"

Granted intimate access for 10 days, Whitney finds a family overwhelmed by stress and circling to protect Nicholas -- who thinks his mother "took a cab to Jersey" or is "somewhere in New York City."

Mrs. Lanza's estranged husband, Robert, arrived in Tottenville from Virginia a day before filming and is terrified to tell Nicholas the news.

He immediately becomes the target of criticism, although not for his reluctance to reveal the truth to his son, since Mrs. Lanza's family holds out hope that she is alive and suffering from "hysterical amnesia." Rather, some of Mrs. Lanza's relatives blame him for her having to work at the World Trade Center, and thus, for her disappearance.

The duress makes Mrs. Lanza's younger sister, Cindy Chamberlain-Oricchio, catatonic. Her older sister, Susan Chamberlain, believes Mrs. Lanza is dead but is not convinced that Lanza, a fundamentalist Christian, is good for Nicholas.

Mrs. Lanza's mother, Ethel Chamberlain, is angry through most of the film and distraught through all of it. "Death is too easy for them," she says of the terrorists. "I want them tortured."

As if to counter Mrs. Chamberlain's reaction to her daughter's killers, the film dissolves to the Brooklyn home of Shabbir Ahmed, a Muslim waiter at Windows on the World who died in the attacks.

His family -- a wife, three children and a brother -- recount tearful stories of Ahmed while at the same time they are compelled to defend their faith. Ahmed's 16-year-old son, Thambir, later assists Whitney in making the documentary and befriends Nicholas.

In a splash of comic relief, Nicholas and Thambir hit the Tottenville Bakery to research a project for Thambir's social studies class. Armed with an unmarked map of the world, they ask customers to locate Afghanistan with a magic marker. High school teachers and a college student fail miserably, identifying France, Ghana and Poland.

Moments like that give the audience some breathing room in a film that is brutally honest and otherwise difficult to watch.

The most heart-wrenching scene is of Lanza telling Nicholas his mother is dead, 10 days after the attack. The private moment is caught on tape by Whitney, who eavesdrops on headphones with a therapist who coached Lanza on what to say.

Nicholas cries right away, as if he understood all along what had happened and was waiting for an adult to confirm his worst fear. Still, he hugs his father and asks why she had to die, when he can get a new mother, what will happen to him and whether he will die. All the while, the audience hears his tiny heart racing over the microphone attached to Lanza's chest.

Nicholas eventually pulls himself together enough to console his grandmother, who faints when she realizes her daughter is not coming home. "Mommy's dead, but you will always have me," he tells her.

"The cameras were so secondary to them because they were concerned with getting their mom, wife, daughter and sister back," Whitney said. "Our being there was academic to a point. I was looking at this as a model for how other parents could tell their children that someone close to them is gone."

Whitney said that, unlike other documentaries he has made, he did not have to employ a crew to distract Mrs. Lanza's family from becoming fixated on the camera.

Despite some initial protests about Whitney's presence from relatives, Ms. Chamberlain said her family grew comfortable with him. Whitney himself was chased from his Tribeca loft by the World Trade Center collapse and was temporarily without a home.

"[Whitney] kept saying to us that my sister will be memorialized forever in this film," Ms. Chamberlain said. "When others have moved on and forgotten the people who died, they will still remember Michele."

Mrs. Lanza's father, Al Chamberlain, comforted his wife and Ms. Chamberlain after last night's screening. Lanza and Mrs. Chamberlain-Oricchio did not attend.

Chamberlain had seen the film once before and said the second time was as emotionally draining as the first.

"The purpose of the film is to tell people who never lost a loved one how those of us who did felt at the time," he said. "It did its job."

"Telling Nicholas" is scheduled to air Sunday, Mother's Day, at 10 p.m. on HBO.

DIRECTOR'S FILMS: GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: New York, GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: Hollywood, Telling Nicholas, Just, Melvin,
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