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NWI native's 9/11 documentary captures feel at street level

Nicole Rittenmeyer, a Munster High School graduate, holds the Outstanding Nonfiction Special Emmy she won for her film, "102 Minutes That Changed America." The documentary film blends videos that New Yorkers recorded during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and will air on the History Channel on Sept. 11.

An award-winning documentary by Northwest Indiana native Nicole Rittenmeyer puts viewers at street level, shoulder to shoulder with onlookers watching the terror unfold.

In the opening minutes, viewers feel as if they're on the pavement right alongside others struggling to make sense of a plane crashing into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

A ticking clock tracks the morning's horrific events through the eyes of people who'd been at work in nearby buildings, at home looking out their windows or just passing in the street.

"102 Minutes That Changed America," which won three Emmy awards, blends videos shot by people who happened to be at the scene that day. Rittenmeyer directed and co-produced the film.

The challenge in making the film, Rittenmeyer said, "was to tell the story in a new way."

The film was not Rittenmeyer's first look at the events of 9/11. The daughter of former Calumet College of St. Joseph President Dennis Rittenmeyer, she had worked on the film "Inside 9/11" for the National Geographic channel.

That film had been traditional in its approach, using expert interviews and a narrator telling the plot points. Going into production of the new film, "I had a good amount of experience with what I already knew existed," she said.

A 1987 graduate of Munster High School, Rittenmeyer now lives in Brooklyn with husband, Seth Skundrick, and her three children. It also is where their production company, New Animal Productions, is located.

But she was far from New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

Then pregnant with son Donovan, and with twin toddler daughters Ruby and Kyle, now 11, Rittenmeyer lived on Forest Avenue in Hammond.

"I watched the whole thing on TV like everyone else," she said. "My first thought, like everyone's probably, was 'Oh my God, how many people are in those buildings and how are they going to get them out.'"

In what seemed an unreal moment, she watched on the news as the first tower started to collapse, while the TV news anchor in the foreground continued to broadcast, apparently unaware.

"I felt like it was happening in slow motion, and he must not have been looking at his monitor, because he just kept talking like he didn't see it. I thought I was imagining it."

Her career started with an attraction to news reporting.

"I always wanted to be a journalist and thought television news seemed very glamorous and exciting, so that was my initial pursuit. But news is crazy deadlines and too much about breaking news and not enough depth for me. So I thought long-form documentary was a better way to go."

After graduate school at Columbia College in Chicago, she landed a job with Tower Productions in 1997.

"The 80-hour work weeks started immediately," she said.

"102 Minutes That Changed America" debuted in 2008 and will be shown several times during The History Channel's Sept. 11 observance of the 10th anniversary of the day.

In creating the film, Rittenmeyer's production team experimented with putting together material in real time and without the documentary devices of narration and talking-head interviews.

"We quickly realized it was something special, totally immersive and experiential," she said. "Once we arrived at the style, we aimed to recreate as authentically as possible what it was really like in New York City on that day."

The crew got word out by posting messages on You Tube and in fliers in the ground zero area, and "footage started to find us," she said. "The filmmaking community in New York City is a pretty great network. We'd tell people what we were doing, and they would tell us about friends who'd shot (video) that day. We found quite a lot of footage that way."

Rittenmeyer stops short of assigning a message to the film.

"In many ways I feel that's beyond me. Our job was to tell a compelling story that moved people, and I hope we did that. What people take away from it is up to them.

"I will say, though, that after making this film I have no time for the conspiracy theorists. To go down that rabbit hole totally diminishes what people in New York City experienced."

"102 Minutes That Changed America" will be shown at 8:46 a.m. and again at 8 p.m. region time Sept. 11 on The History Channel.