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Film celebrates the spirit of service post-9/11

As the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks approached, Megan Sleeper '02 and Scott Rettberg were determined to finish the film they'd been working on since 2006 about the spirit of service and unity that came about in the wake of the tragic events. They knew the film, called New York Says Thank You, could mark the somber anniversary in an uplifting way.

“We thought rather than having people watch the towers falling again and again, this would be something positive,” said Sleeper, who produced it. “The film shows that a small idea can grow into something that can really change the world.”

“The most amazing thing about 9/11 is the compassion of 9/12,” said Rettberg, the film's director. “That’s what the film is about.”

Megan Sleeper '02 (left), pictured here with President Pelton after her film screening, was a student at Emerson during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  A few years after graduating, she went on to produce New York Says Thank You, a film about the spirit of service after the tragedy.

Rettberg and Sleeper met their goal, and New York Says Thank You premiered worldwide to rave reviews this summer at the Tribeca Film Festival.

On September 1, the team visited the Emerson campus, along with New York firefighter Brian Fitzpatrick, who is featured in the film, for a screening that was part of a 9/11 remembrance series at the College. Nearly 150 people, including Emerson faculty, students, and alumni, and several 9/11 family members, participated in the event.

“It was wonderful,” said Dean of the School of Communication Janis Andersen. “I was amazed at how well they captured the emotions of the people in the film.”

The 90-minute documentary follows a group of New Yorkers who travel every September to communities across the country that are struck by disaster, to help others rebuild, and to say “thank you” for the support they once received after 9/11. It centers on four New Yorkers: a firefighter from the Bronx, the construction superintendent of the Ground Zero cleanup effort, an Italian-American financial adviser and family man from Staten Island, and a young firefighter whose first fire call was to the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Another key figure in the film is Jeff Parness, founder of The New York Says Thank You Foundation. In 2003, it was Parness’s then 5-year-old son, Evan, who originally convinced his neighbors and family to drive from New York to San Diego to deliver toys and other goods to families affected by wildfires. What started with a group of 14 volunteers continues to grow and has become a national organization that brings people together in the spirit of service.

Visual and Media Arts Associate Professor Rob Todd moderated a Q & A after the screening. Sleeper and Rettberg advised Emerson’s aspiring filmmakers about the importance of choosing projects that they are passionate about, and then partnering with others who are behind the cause.

“We were lucky that so many people were inspired by this group,” said Rettberg. “It’s passion that gets you through the bumps.”

New York Says Thank You is showing now through Friday, September 9, in theaters in Los Angeles and New York. It will air on select FOX affiliate stations nationwide and will simultaneously be streamed live on AOL on Saturday, September 10, at 8 pm.

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