Monday, August 23, 2010

Bringing Grace to Ground Zero

As another September 11th anniversary inexorably approaches, few people are in a better position to gauge the lingering maelstrom of conflicting emotions and beliefs than Australian documentary filmmaker Simon Dikkenberg. Currently in New York City with his brother-law Daniel Rodriguez, the former NYPD officer who enthralled the nation in the wake of the devastating attacks with renditions of "God Bless Ameria" and the national anthem, Dikkenberg has chosen to improvise a new course of distribution for their collaborative feature-length project Amazing Grace Experience.

"I'm thinking that I will release much of the current film online leading into this ninth anniversary," Dikkenberg reveals during an interview with FilmStew. "The bigger picture is still unfolding, but many of the scenes we have captured are very powerful and I believe will help people start talking and exploring their own experiences. I'm thinking 12 scenes - from September 1st to the 12th this year."

"The idea at the heart of Amazing Grace Experience is that we experienced grace - unity, compassion, freedom - in the wake of 9/11, so we can again," he continues. "We needed the terror of 9/11 to access that feeling in 2001, and I hope we don't need that again. What will it take for us all as individuals to set out to find and create our own freedom, our own September 12th mentality? This film is intended to be one of many available guides in that quest."


Dikkenberg and Rodriguez are related through marriage to a pair of New Zealand twin sisters, Marla and Marissa Craig. The two women are themselves opera singers who tour professionally with Rodriguez, most recently as part of a 107-city U.S. tour.

During two months spent on the road with Rodriguez and their wives, the 32-year-old Dikkenberg became increasingly moved and intrigued by the way his brother-in-law shared his story with nightly audiences and how moved they were in turn by it. Out of this grew the basic idea for Amazing Grace Experience, which is tethered to the ageless Christian hymn.

"Daniel has an extraordinary talent for connecting to people on a deep, personal level," Dikkenberg observes. "He is seen as a spokesperson and symbol of light amongst the darkness of 9/11. As I started to understand who he had been for people back in 2001, I began to recognize the opportunity for him to lead people again, at this new and different stage of their grieving and healing. To his credit, Daniel has been open and courageous in confronting the buried trauma. Very few people are so willing to question and expand themselves."

A June 2010 NYC shoot snapshot

When I first made contact last week with Dikkenberg, he had just completed an interview with former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guliani. At the other end of the spectrum, he and Rodriguez were confronted with the tricky task of deciding whether to accept an invitation for the singer to perform at a Sunday August 22nd "Stop the Mosque" rally at Ground Zero. Tellingly perhaps, Guliani himself endorses the idea of religious freedom at the Ground Zero site, but has also stated that just because a mosque can be erected there doesn't mean that it should.

"I must say, I now share Guliani's view," Dikkenberg confesses. "A few months ago, I was sent a Facebook page link that was pro-mosque. My default world view supports that idea, so I 'liked' it. But, having given it a lot of thought and listened to both sides I really think that the division and suffering the mosque will cause far exceeds any benefit of building at that location... Having witnessed that [anti-mosque rally] crowd yesterday, I am clear that building it will only create a spiral of pain for all."

"Despite my resistance to dealing with politics in the film, I very recently realized that it is the starting point for the conversation," he adds. "To start talking about forgiveness, people have to recognize for themselves the futility of the arguments."


"Performing at the August 22nd "Stop the Mosque" rally was a tough decision for Daniel. I was really against it because I thought it was hypocritical, given we are positioning him as a spokesman for peace. But, I really get now that for him he wanted to support the 9/11 families who are so important to him (Rodriguez performed three songs). He wanted his music to help release the anger and to comfort the pain those people are experiencing."

Dikkenberg first sourced the recorded talents of his Puerto Rican brother-in-law for The Last Hundred Years, a documentary about senior citizens living an isolated existence in the inner city suburbs of Sydney. To gain the proper perspective on what lies ahead this coming century, he is hoping for Amazing Grace Experience to be able to interview Nelson Mandela and-or Bishop Desmond Tutu, to go along with Guliani and other featured subjects such as Cardinal Edward Egan and 9/11 emergency management coordinator Richard Schierer. However, a trip to South Africa and any other parts of the world is contingent on the amount of DVD pre-orders Dikkenberg receives for his latest project.

"It's been beautiful to witness Daniel reconnecting with people he loves and who understand what he went through," Dikkenberg shares. "I am getting more and more clear that I have to let Daniel's natural journey of forgiveness unfold. He is torn. A huge part of him is angry and unresolved and doesn't want to forgive. But, in his heart and in his [Catholic] spiritual outlook, he knows that to be free he needs to find forgiveness. I just need to keep finding opportunities for him and to document them along the way."

[Amazing Grace Experience]

Update - 09/10/10: Dikkenberg's companion online project has launched under the name Find 9/12.


  1. Absolutely beautiful article on your Filmstew site! Thank you Richard.

  2. You're welcome. It's a great project, and I look forward to watching the online September 2010 segments if they are released as planned