Director Angelo Guglielmo didn’t want to make this film. The Woman Who Wasn’t There — executive produced by Meredith Viera and premiering Investigation Discovery April 17 at 8pm ET/PT — started out as the idea of its eventual subject, Tania Head. One of the most celebrated survivors of the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center, Head had one of the most harrowing and inspirational stories of any who made it out alive that day. After barely escaping death on the 78th floor of the South Tower, she escaped the immediate carnage and although badly burned, managed to make it to safety through the assistance of well-documented hero Welles Crowther (the “man in the red bandana”) who perished that day, as well as from an unidentified fireman who ostensibly survived. She woke in a hospital five days later to find that her fianceé had died in the North Tower collapse.
A leader in the survivors’ community, Head had approached Guglielmo about making a follow-up to his first 9/11 film, The Heart of Steel, to focus on the survivors. According to Guglielmo, it took a lot of cajoling and convincing on Head’s part to get him to relent. But when he brought in his cameras, Head seemed reluctant to get in front of the lens. Eventually, he found out why: A New York Times inquiry led to the revelation that her entire story was a fabrication from start to finish. She wasn’t a survivor, and in all likelihood was at home in Barcelona, Spain on that infamous day. With filming well underway, Guglielmo suddenly saw his film’s subject shift from themes of heroism and inspiration to a story of deception and deep personal betrayal. I talked to him about his experience making The Woman Who Wasn’t There (and the book that accompanied it), the effect the events had on him personally and about the fallout that resulted when the woman to whom so many looked up to turned out to have been an impostor.
Channel Guide Magazine: Just so we have full context, can you tell us where you were on 9/11?
Angelo Guglielmo: I had volunteered down at the Jacob Javits Center collecting supplies on September 11. We were actually transferred to Ground Zero the following Saturday and we stayed there until just before New Year’s, collecting and running a supply chain. We ran a supply tent for the workers on the corner of Liberty and West Street just opposite the South Tower.
CGM: How did you first meet Tania Head?
AG: We met giving tours. We were at a training session to give tours for the World Trade Center Tribute Center, and we were giving tours of the World Trade Center site, and we were in the first docent class for training. She came up to me, told me her story, and I just burst into tears. And at that point, it didn’t take long before we became friends and she was asking me to do a documentary based on her group.
CGM: What’s stunning in The Woman Who Wasn’t There is how you can see that shift of the documentary’s focus from the story of the person to the person herself. Can you tell me a bit about how you experienced that transition, when the house of cards started to come down? How did that play out?
AG: It was the summer of 2007. I had called Tania and said, “Listen, I don’t think I can actually do this documentary anymore. It’s obvious that it’s not the right time, and you’re not ready. It may be just better for all of us if you just come and pick up the tapes. Come and pick up the tapes. I’ll give them to you, and you can keep them for the archives.” I had gone out to California to do some post-production work on a comedy that I was working on, and that’s when the New York Times began their inquiry. Now, they began their inquiry into her story right away — three interviews were set up; three interviews were cancelled. And then she started asking me for those tapes back, once it was clear that they were going to expose her.
She must have known what she was doing, and that she probably shouldn’t have opened the door to a documentary filmmaker, into her life. And I really tried to push the project off as much as I could — I told her, “I really am not interested in doing a documentary. I’m not interested in revisiting this subject. I already did The Heart of Steel — I’ve said everything I have to say about this.” I said, “I’m not the person to do this project.” I said, “I really, really want to do a comedy.” And she persisted until I showed up with the cameras. … It was difficult to get Tania in front of a camera. I said, “Well, you got me here — you have to tell your story. There won’t be any reason to have any archival footage if your story isn’t in there.” And boy, did I have to twist her arm. I finally got her to sit down for three or four interviews, but of course, we had no idea that we were shooting a documentary that was about false identity, deceit and betrayal.
CGM: The Woman Who Wasn’t There doesn’t seem to make much of a direct statement about Tania’s condition. It leaves interpretation pretty much up to the viewer …
AG: Well, I wasn’t going to diagnose her.
CGM: No, no — certainly not.
AG: I had talked to too many people about what her conditions were. We even had two psychiatrists that we had interviewed, and there was such a variable. A hundred people gave me 75 responses, so you just were like, “Well, nobody really knows what it is.” And I felt it was better, dramatically, to leave it in the audience’s hands and have it be a mystery.
CGM: I think most people would say Tania was crazy for courting publicity and pressing for a film to be made, but do you think there’s a part of her — maybe a good part of her, that wanted to be found out, to be caught, so that she had a reason to end the deception?
AG: I believe so. I mean, man — you could talk to 100 people about this and you’ll get 100 different responses. I believe that there was a part of her that was good, that wanted to do the right thing, and that really, authentically tried to help people. I think there were other histories at work that prevented her from doing that in a complete manner which was honest and healthy.
CGM: After all that transpired, the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network received an email, allegedly from a Spanish account, saying that Tania had committed suicide. That would seem to fit the pattern of someone with her apparent disorder. Was anyone able to follow up on that to find out if it was actually Tania who sent it?
AG: No, we didn’t have any of the skills to actually decode the HTML and figure out where it was from. If it was from a Spanish account, there still was no way of verifying if it was actually Tania. … It was a rumor that was going around, but there was no way for us to really verify if that was her. The Survivors believe that it was, because it sort of fit her communication pattern, so I know that they felt that that would have been her, but it just hadn’t been verified, so no one was ever sure.
CGM: The Survivors — do a lot of them have mixed emotions about Tania, having worked with her and received some measure of catharsis or a salve, or whatever, from having been in her presence? Or is it more like they’ve had the bandages ripped off to some extent?
AG: I think it — it’s difficult for them to have any compassion for her, because of how deeply she betrayed them. And that’s understandable. They have to heal from those wounds, so they’re not going to revisit any type of — it’s more important for them to reinforce, every day, that her deception was real.
CGM: Is there a part of you that would like to see her try to make amends, maybe drawing on that positive part of her personality that obviously is there? Is it possible for her to make that kind of contrition and reconciliation?
AG: I hope so. I mean, I always hope that she will come to a place to understand what she’s done, and I always hope that she would open the door to the Survivors to say that she is sorry, or that she feels something remorseful about the pain that she’s caused. I think the lack of acknowledgment of it, I think, has been quite painful for everyone all these years.
CGM: At the same time, here we are, with this film about to be broadcast on national television. Do you feel like this is going to potentially push her further away, or is that not even an issue?
AG: I worry about her all the time. I worry about the impact that this is going to have on her. I worry about the way she’s going to respond to this kind of scrutiny once again. I worry about interrupting her treatment, if she is actually trying to deal with it. It hasn’t been an easy story to tell, because no matter how you look at it, it’s still so painful a story, and it’s still so sad that it happened. … We struggled with making the film the entire time. I struggled personally, because the people, I think, that were making the film never met her, so there was sort of a comfortable distance between their emotions and her, when that’s the case. And when you know somebody, especially to the degree that we knew each other, everything changes.
CGM: I don’t think this is giving too much away, but the film ends rather abruptly with what looks like was going to be a confrontation. Was there more of a confrontation than ended up being seen in the film?
AG: There was a confrontation. I asked her how could she come to New York after the 10th anniversary, and doesn’t she feel anything for the people that she’s hurt? Of course, we felt since I wasn’t a character in the film, it would have raised too many questions. … The audience would have said, “Is this a survivor? Who is speaking? Who is confronting her?” It was much better to just show the audience that she was indeed alive and living in New York, or at least visiting New York, and leave it in the audience’s hands for discussion afterward. On a personal level, I felt really bad about confronting her like that. It’s a complicated thing. You have to realize that Tania did some pretty despicable things and she hurt a lot of people, but it was my job as a filmmaker and a journalist to find her humanity at the same time, and try to maintain a level of compassion for her. [I] struggle with that to this day.
Photos: Investigation Discovery/Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr.
Rendered Images: Investigation Discovery/Chase Stone