The documentary filmmaker brothers Jules and Gédéon Naudet know something of capturing trauma on film. On September 11th, 2001, they were embedded with a New York Fire Department unit when the first plane struck the World Trade Center, capturing the only known footage of that initial horror. Their resulting film, “9/11,” provides a firsthand account of the heroism of the firefighters who ran to the inferno and is capped by a tearful reunion of the brothers back at the firehouse.
Their 2018 film “November 13: Attack on Paris” recounted the 2015 rampage of murder at the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo by Muslim extremists. And now, on the second anniversary of the Capitol riot, the Naudet brothers are back with “January 6th,” releasing today on Discovery+.
Their approach requires facing the darkness, so much so that Jules says they must practically put themselves back into the midst of the awfulness in order to tell the story properly.
“Whenever we are going to ask people to be revisiting such a traumatic experience, to put themselves in a very vulnerable state, our way is almost having to punish ourselves by seeing every image,” Jules said, referencing Nietzsche’s famous dictum that when you look into the abyss, it peers back into you. “[Our subjects] knew that we had lived something as traumatic, and so probably felt a little bit more legitimate for us to ask these difficult questions.”
Indeed, the Naudet brothers speak to many who were present at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, including members of Congress, Capitol police officers, journalists and others who witnessed a rage-filled mob gleefully drunk on the absurdities peddled by a sore loser in the White House and his enablers. The Naudets frame their subjects against a black background, which forces us to be undistracted as the interviewees recount their experiences.
Gédéon said that they work with a firm in Washington, D.C., called Interface Media Group, where they were able to shoot their interviews in a controlled environment.
“We knew that the documentary was going to be so violent, so intense,” he said. “So we thought that maybe to cool down, there are those moments of introspection. Maybe we needed to put the interviewees in a place where they felt they could be within themselves—maybe remember inside their head this extremely intense day.”
Interviewees include familiar faces from the January 6 committee such as Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the Republican who was bounced from her seat last fall for daring to call out the former president. One of the most intriguing congressional faces who appears is Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas, a true believer who says it was his solemn duty to object to the electoral count—only to find himself facing the rageful mob only inches away from the chamber door.
“The most important part before we start any project is really the research, and moving to the place,” Jules said of relocating temporarily to Washington for the better part of a year. “Trust is earned, it’s not given. There’s no shortcuts, and the only way to do that is to meet with a lot of people and break bread, have lunch or have a coffee, or take the time to explain either to the politician themselves—or normally their team—and then it’s that kind of domino effect: You meet one person who directs you to others.”
Granted, the brothers’s previous films gave them cache with the gatekeepers. And because they understand that trauma doesn’t obey any objective timeline, this allowed for a sense of empathy while convincing their subjects to open up on camera. This includes a Capitol policeman who had previously served in the military, who tearfully tells the brothers he never imagined he would be fighting Americans here at home.
Indeed, four Capitol police officers committed suicide in the days after the insurrection. Those survivors who spoke to the “January 6th” cameras seem dumbstruck as to how they could have sworn the same oath to defend the Constitution as did military veterans who stormed the Capitol that day.
“That was for them the most traumatizing, the most gut-wrenching, the most incomprehensible of the things that happened,” Jules said. “I think that was one of the true traumatizing experiences for all of them.
“For us [we are] always in awe of people who have that candor to be able to talk about complicated things like that,” Jules said, adding that both of their wives have been emotional rocks for the brothers during the process.
“It takes quite a lot of courage first of all to relieve something [that is], as Jules said, traumatic,” added Gédéon. “But also it takes a tremendous amount of courage when you know that what you are going to say is going to be shared with potentially millions of viewers who will be judging.”
No matter the factual record, there remain those who claim either that the January 6 attacks were “staged” or they were a “normal tourist visit.” Jules said thus it was important to apply an apolitical approach of just the facts.
“We’re not journalists, we don’t do big investigative work,” he said. “We’re documentary filmmakers, and always what we’ve done throughout our career is to show the humanity of people. And we thought that the best way to show people who are skeptical [was] to go with Discovery+, which is fantastic because it’s very neutral.”
It was also key to interview first responders who braved the mob’s fury. Jules insists their stories haven’t been told well enough as much of the air has been taken up by politicians’ recollections. Even during the interviews he and his brother conducted, the first responders continued to play down their actions that day: It was part of their job.
“Through these personal little moments of courage that everyday people [exhibited] that day, we want to be able to convince people at least to look at it in a different way,” Jules said. “To look at it not through the lens of politics but through the lens of human experience.”
Gédéon added that there have been many times when democracies such as ours have been threatened with collapse—and this won’t be the last such instance. However, as immigrants to this country themselves, the brothers nonetheless still exhibit a certain sense of hope.
“It’s not with optimism that you save a democracy, or a multi-racial democracy; it is acts,” he said. “It might be a bumpy road, but we’re still standing. On Sept. 11, at the moment where you see the worst of humanity, the best of us is always present. And that’s the thing that always keeps us going.”
He hopes viewers come away from the documentary with a sense of what it was really like to be inside a Capitol under siege—and that audiences continue to maintain hope in democracy even after it has been threatened.
“It’s like believing in Santa Claus,” Gédéon said, “I will never stop.”
“January 6th” will be available on Discovery+ today.