An Inside Job 

Members of the 9/11 "Truth" movement are typically disparaged as crackpots. In fact, they're actually wonks.

At first glance, the scene outside last week's 9/11 Film festival resembled that of any other big, protest-oriented event. Truther organizations such as the Northern California 911 Truth Alliance and Project Censored crammed the lobby of Oakland's Grand Lake Theater, setting up tables with books; DVDs; "Wake Up and Smell the Fascism" bumper stickers; rubber stamps with the slogan "9/11 was an inside job;" pictures of Hendrix, John Lennon, and Mahatma Gandhi; and "Deception dollars." Middle-aged white guys with long hair and tie-dyed shirts milled around the room, greeting each other like old friends. It looked and felt like a typical crowd of rabble-rousers — at least until you listened in on their conversations.

Hardcore Truthers are an odd bunch, even among activists. They tend to be well-educated and enraptured with scientific jargon, even if they lack a science background. Bound by a shared skepticism of the mainstream 9-11 narrative, they hold a range of opinions about what really happened on 9-11: Some think it just needs to be better investigated as a crime scene; many believe it was a full-fledged government conspiracy; some call it a "psychological attack on the American people." Those trying to advance their own theories usually place the burden of proof on science — or a combination of empirical data and abstract conjecture that looks very much like science. Thus, Truther rhetoric is often dry, emotionless, and blindingly complex. That has made the movement very insular.

Now in its fifth year, the 9/11 Film Fest faces a bit of an inertia problem, akin to what's happened to the peace movement at large. "Remember during Bush/Cheney years we used to have anti-war rallies all the time?" asked festival founder Carol Brouillet. "Now with the regime change there's not as many rallies." On top of that, Brouillet and company faced the normal logistical difficulties of trying to coordinate the dozen guest speakers and trying to amass enough world premieres to make the event worth people's time (after all, most of these films are available for free online). And though one might have assumed that the recent Van Jones flap would help bring more recognition to the movement, Brouillet says that most media coverage served to discredit, rather than validate the movement.

Wednesday night wound up being the cool, hip-hoppy half of the festival and Thursday the nerdy, academic half. The main draw on Wednesday was the world premiere of Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup, the latest of a series made by twenty-five-year-old director Dylan Avery. His films, which feature slick hip-hop soundtracks and VH1-style editing (the new one is narrated by actor Daniel Sunjata) mark the apex of popular success for 9-11 conspiracy-theory material. According to producer Korey Rowe, it is the most downloaded movie in the history of the Internet. During the post-screening discussion, no one challenged Avery's premise that 9-11 was planned and coordinated by the US government, or that the World Trade Center collapsed because of a controlled demolition, rather than a plane crash or fire damage. Instead, audience questions ranged from basic (i.e., "Why do you call the film Loose Change) to specific ("Why was Obama included in the closing of this film?"). Cleary, Rowe and Avery were preaching to the converted.

Thursday was for the real diehards, not only because it featured twelve full hours of academic speakers and documentaries, but also owing to its more obtuse content. Among the films screened that day were Anthrax War by Bob Coen and Eric Nadler, a film about bio-weapons, and The New American Century by Italian filmmaker Massimo Mazzucco, which historicizes the neocon movement that some Truthers believe paved the way for 9-11. Retired Claremont School of Theology professor Ray Griffin delivered closing remarks for an audience that filled about half of the 620-capacity theater. Roughly 80 percent male, the crowd skewed older, and most of its members appeared to know as much, or more, about controlled demolition theory than their speaker, who is widely regarded as one of the movement's forefathers. The audience's erudition became apparent during the Q&A, for which attendees submitted paragraph-long questions on pieces of paper. The first question set the tone:

"Building 7 was built and managed by the real estate giant Tishman-Speyer. TS also rebuilt Building 7, which has reopened. TS is headed by Jerry Speyer, who is a close friend of Larry Silverstein, and David Rockefeller, and a member of the CFR Trilateral Commission and Builder Group. He is also a committed Zionist. There is more, but suffice to say isn't it time for a closer look at Jerry Speyer and his firm?"

"Sounds like it," said Griffin.

Other questions got even more precise:

"Do you know of any thermidic materials, chemical compounds, etc., discovered at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon explosion site, that have been traced to a particular manufacturer?"

They also got increasingly elaborate:

"Dr. Griffin, regarding the reason for taking down World Trade Center 7: One theory is that it was an 'SCIF' — a Secure Controlled Intelligence Facility. This theory holds that the key CIA agents who were responsible for 9-11 were told to come to World Trade Center 7 for a debriefing that afternoon, and WTC 7 was taken down for the purpose of killing these CIA agents, thus covering up key evidence. What is your opinion of this theory?"

For engineers and data geeks like Greg Roberts, an out-of-work technical writer who now edits content for the web site, these scholarly dialogues are an absolute delight. Roberts stood in the film fest lobby on Thursday night, hawking copies of a new report he'd co-authored for the site — an intricate compendium of pie charts, graphs, and photographs taken under a microscope to show the chemical properties of thermate — a combustible compound he believes caused the 9-11 explosions.

But for the average person, such discussions can be pretty off-putting. Already maligned as conspiracy theorists and agitators, 9-11 Truthers have the added problem of being a bit wonky. It wasn't always that way. Brouillet says the group's first-ever screening in 2003 managed to pack San Francisco's Herbst Theater. Grand Lake Theater owner Allen Michaan, who donates his venue for two days because he believes in the cause, said activism across the board has gotten, well, male, wonky, and middle-aged. "That tends to be the demographic with most of the political events that we do," he said. "Not enough young people come to these things. Not enough women."

Nonetheless, 9/11 Film Fest soldiers on, and its founders seem relatively optimistic. Brouillet had high hopes for Loose Change, and it had indeed packed the theater on Wednesday night. As far as the second night — well, when you have David Griffin pontificating for more than an hour on nano-thermate right on the heels of a documentary about the anthrax "germ war arms race," you can't expect every hipster in Oakland to show up.

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