Friday, March 03, 2006

I Hope You Get the Chance to See Vito After

Image of Detective Vito Friscia via Dreamslate Productions site.

Perhaps you're not sure you're ready for a documentary with 9/11 at its heart. I wasn't completely sure, but I thought I might be. So, I went to the sneak preview of Vito After held especially for Mystery Writers of America, and I was really glad. Vito After deals with tough subjects, but with a light touch. I thought it was absolutely terrific, very high quality, and I hope it will be picked up somewhere for national distribution. People will be fascinated.

Detective Vito Friscia is a Brooklyn homicide detective who scrambled to the WTC on 9/11 and then spent months at Fresh Kills landfill frantically looking for remains and personal items in an attempt to provide concrete identification of victims for their families. After such intense, lengthy exposure to toxic debris, he's developed what cops nicknamed the WTC cough, but he's not pointing fingers. In fact, he and his brother cops are exactly what you imagine and want them to be: wisecracking, stoic, and loyal. Friscia's sister-in-law, Maria Pusateri, is the filmmaker following him over two years as he takes up his normal life interspersed with physicals he doesn't want to learn about consequences he'd rather ignore.

There's a hilarious scene where he's filling out a medical questionnaire at light speed, answering "Not At All" to every impairment from mental to respiratory to sexual. Pusateri asks him if he thinks all the cops answer the same way. "Yeah," he says, implying "of course." If the doctors want to show something's wrong with him, they'll have to prove it with a chest X-ray. He's not offering them any sob story, and his approach is typical of many of the heroes of that day. We see inside his family life, where the humor and love for them that Vito uses to cope is on display along with his mental toughness and willingness to trust fate. The portrayal of his psychological journey is strong, but the physical issues so many are suffering quietly is the revelation of the film.

All of NYC's 7,000+ detectives rotated through Fresh Kills sometime during the I.D. phase. All September and October, there were no days off, and often after Vito's 12-hour shifts, he'd volunteer to stay for an extra 8. He was not the only one. What makes the impact of his current circumstances even stronger is the documentary's simple, clear focus on Vito's specific story and its lack of easy conclusions or accusations. The country was subjected to a previously undreamed horror on September 11th. Vito and others who lived and worked around the debris were also in unimagined territory. Despite lingering symptoms that don't seem to improve with time and which are slowly debilitating some of his fellow cops, Vito doesn't regret the way he spent his days after 9/11. "....I would do it again. I would do it a hundred times if I had to do it, if I felt I could give anybody closure in their life."

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