Parents of British victim attack 'cruel and insensitive' TV drama about 9/11 hijackers

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The Independent Online

The parents of a British woman killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks have branded as tasteless and insensitive a television drama made from the perspective of three of the hijackers.

The Hamburg Cell, to be screened on Channel 4 this week, re-enacts the known movements of the terrorists as they plotted attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

The film has been co-written by the Booker Prize-nominated Ronan Bennett, a prominent Irish republican sympathiser, who was convicted, but later cleared on appeal, of the 1975 killing of a policeman near Belfast. Bennett's other screen credits include Rebel Heart, which caused controversy over accusations that it glorified the IRA. The programme-makers have denied the film sympathises with the hijackers, while some US families have welcomed any project that sheds light on what motivated the terrorists.

But the Rev David Prothero and his wife, Sue, whose 35-year-old daughter Sarah Redheffer died when the first hijacked plane struck the trade centre's north tower, said the programme, which will be broadcast on Thursday - nine days before the third anniversary of the atrocity - was ill-timed.

Mrs Prothero, who lives in Bath, said: "It appals me that anybody could put this on so soon. Whether it has been made well, or fairly, or whatever, is completely irrelevant to me or our family. It appals me that somebody has said now is the time to do this, as if it were over.

"We certainly won't be watching. So far we are not at the stage even of being able to watch the videos that were given to us of services of remembrance at the time."

Families of British victims were warned of the programme at a recent meeting of the UK September 11 Family Support Group. Joy Bennett, whose 29-year-old son Oliver also died in the north tower, said she would not be watching it.

"I think the timing is very cruel for us. What happened is so abominable anyway, but the timing is awful and I would not imagine any of the families will actually watch it," Mrs Bennett said.

The central figure in the two-hour long film is Ziad Jarrah, who was at the controls of United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in Pennsylvania. It shows him being transformed from a moderate Muslim into a suicide hijacker in the months before the attacks. The film also shows the other hijackers, including Mohamed Atta, the ringleader who flew the first plane into the trade centre, which killed Sarah Redheffer and Oliver Bennett. There were 67 Britons among the estimated 2,700 people who died on 11 September 2001.

Channel 4's head of documentaries, Peter Dale, who commissioned The Hamburg Cell, said the programme was a clear, level-headed examination of events in the build-up to 9/11. "For the families, it is always going to be uncomfortable watching. They probably will choose not to watch it and I completely respect that," he said.

But he defended the programme, the writers and director. The film, he said, was sensitively put together and shows a detailed account of the events up to 9/11 that in no way glorifies or sympathises with the hijackers. "But we try to understand why these people were going to these lengths," he said. "It has been done extremely well."

David Aukin, executive producer of the film made by the independent television production company Mentorn, said of the hijackers: "It's in no sense sympathetic to them. They're monsters but they were also, unfortunately, human beings. This is a better way to give some understanding of why they did it."

Americans broadcasters initially pulled out of the production but talks are now in place to distribute the film in US cinemas. Several US families of 9/11 victims have said they would welcome the programme if it shed more light on what happened.

David Potorti, whose older brother Jim died in the World Trade Centre, is co-director of Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an international peace campaign set up after 9/11.

"It is difficult to watch and to hear these facts come out," he said, "but the only way to prevent 9/11 from happening again is to face the facts courageously. There will never be closure. My parents lost their first-born son Jim, who was 52. They are going to carry this with them for the rest of their lives. You never get over this."