SBS on high wire

The decision by public broadcaster SBS to screen the documentary Man on Wire on the tenth anniversary of September 11 seemed at first to be either incredibly insensitive or downright cheeky. Yet this bizarre juxtaposition became irresistible to watch and every bit as poignant and thought-provoking as the many hours of heart-breaking commemorations of the tragedy of 9/11 on other channels.

In the film, one man’s peculiar lifelong obsession with the World Trade Centre sees him embark on a madcap scheme involving deception, security breaches and death-defying bravery in order to walk a tightrope suspended between the twin towers.

Philippe Petit, an eccentric juggler and Parisian street performer somehow manages to pull off a most extraordinary feat of human ingenuity and imagination; so that on a brisk morning in May 1974 New Yorkers woke to see the magical sight of a man on a wire seeming to walk, almost religiously, on thin air high above their heads. In the preparation for this surreal moment, we see the story unfold not only of how the twin towers were built, but also the significance the WTC held as a symbol of the imposing power and monumental magnificence of the United States in the last century.

The expressions of awe and amazement on the upturned faces of New Yorkers who witnessed Petit’s illegal feat were in heart-breaking contrast to those more familiar ash-covered, horrified looks of terror and fear we saw on exactly the same sidewalk a generation later.

Some of the footage, filmed long before the horrors of 9/11, eerily predict and evoke the fragility and dangerous vulnerability of the towers. We see the endless stairwells, the sheer height of the two edifices, and the criss-cross metallic structures that would come to epitomize the visual nightmare of Ground Zero, being gracefully lifted into place only a few decades earlier, high above the Manhattan skyline.

The deception and subterfuge involved in getting the trapeze wire into place also have uncanny overtones of the elaborate plotting that went into Al-Qaida’s most infamous act. Months of preparation went into planning the operation, involving fake uniforms, detailed study of the infrastructure of the towers, last minute hiccups and the fear of discovery. Strangely, a primitive weapon – a bow and arrow – is all it takes for Philippe Petit and his ardent followers to straddle the two mighty towers, just as a pair of cardboard box cutters was all it took for Mohammad Atta and his evil gang to bring them down.

Equally, the bravery of the tight-rope walker and his unshakeable determination to conquer the challenges of the ultimate high-wire act and emerge victorious are as simple and as powerful a metaphor as could be found for the bravery and determination of the thousands of individual acts of heroism and self-sacrifice that were performed by the rescue services and countless others on 9/11.

Dubbed the “artistic crime of the century”, the guerrilla-like campaign detailed in Man on Wire can almost be seen as the beginning of an era where individuals learned that they could capture the entire world’s attention through one dramatic, sensational and headline-grabbing act of daring. Post-modern in the extreme, Petit was selling nothing. No message, no protest, no politics. Just fun and adventure for the sake of his art.

Yet his ability to grab the media’s attention through a visual event and get himself on the front page of every newspaper in the world is also the hallmark of the terrorist outrages that culminated ten years ago in the one of the greatest crimes of this century.

But above all, what comes through so strikingly from the documentary is the depiction of the gloriously optimistic and innocent times that have now been lost. Philippe Petit’s extraordinary stunt was only possible due to the trust and complacency of a society living without fear, in a world where human ingenuity and imagination could be harnessed solely for such child-like self-belief and daring. The world of unbridled ingenuity and carefree self-confidence that has always been the hallmark of the West, and at the heart of the American dream. Thank you, SBS, for reminding us – intentionally or otherwise – how sorely it is missed.

Rowan Dean is a freelance writer and social media commentator

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