Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace needed extra chairs. The group's monthly meeting usually draws a few dozen attendees, but Thursday's crowd at the Bethlehem Public Library approached 150 -- well past the posted fire code maximum for the meeting room.
They lined the walls and spilled out into the hall, some crowding near a table offering books, buttons and bumper stickers with messages such as "I'm already against the next war."
The draw was a screening of the Internet documentary film "Loose Change -- Second Edition," followed by a discussion with the filmmakers. When the 82-minute movie ended, there was sustained applause.
The audience members were generally a graying crowd, older than the college groups the Oneonta-based filmmakers usually address -- and resemble. Dylan Avery, the film's 22-year-old director, writer and narrator, and 23-year-old producer Korey Rowe wore flip-flops. Jason Bermas, all of 26, never removed his backward-slung Yankees cap.
Rowe had a question for the crowd: Who's still not buying it? After seeing "Loose Change," was the audience willing to believe that the federal government planned, executed and covered up the 9/11 attacks?
It's a question flying all around the Internet, where rumor and can harden into accepted fact with the speed of a mouse click.
As the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, "Loose Change" has become a magnet for those who have come to believe the worst about their government. Originally posted in April 2005 and already updated in a "second edition," the entire project cost about $6,000 to produce -- a sum that wouldn't cover a day's catering on the set of Oliver Stone's straightforward drama "World Trade Center," which opens Wednesday.
"Loose Change" currently occupies the No. 4 spot on Google's list of the top downloadable videos; Rowe said total downloads from a variety of links total 25 million or more.
In addition to like-minded theorists -- many of them angry about the war in Iraq -- the film has drawn numerous critics, many of whom have filled their own Web pages with point-by-point refutations of the case made in "Loose Change."
No one in the audience at the Neighbors for Peace meeting offered fierce criticism of the film. One twentysomething, Rowe recalled later, was snickering in the back. "I can't believe all this stuff happened and nobody followed up on it," another man said. The quick explanation came from the filmmakers, and then from other audience members: Big Media is contributing to the cover-up. That answer appeared to satisfy.
Others remained skeptical of the film's theories. While antipathy toward the Bush administration appeared to be universal and deep in the room, most of those interviewed weren't prepared to take that final step.
"They made a lot of good points," said Trudy Quaif of Delmar, "(and) it's really powerful, but I'm not sure I believe all of it."
Bruce Bushart of Delmar also stopped short of endorsing the documentary's argument: "You wish it was three times longer, so you could have the counter-theories and the refutations."
The makers of "Loose Change" have recently been profiled in such mainstream outlets as Vanity Fair and Salon. The international media have come calling, as well: The screening in Bethlehem was taped by a German TV crew.
Invade, control, increase
The film, presented against a synth-pop soundtrack, argues that a small cabal of top-level neocons executed the attacks as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq, the control of Middle Eastern oil fields and a massive increase in American military power. Its lines of argument include the theory that a missile and not a commercial airplane hit the Pentagon, and that United Flight 93 did not crash in Pennsylvania but instead landed safely in Cleveland -- or was perhaps blown up or shot down. The filmmakers can't say for sure.
"Loose Change" -- the title refers to the idea that political change is on the move -- relies on news footage and press reports, including many early-response stories from the hours immediately following the attacks. Comments from witnesses and on-the-scene television reports describing "explosions," for example, are used to support one of the film's central theories, that the twin towers were rigged with explosives.
"There are some concrete issues that everyone agrees on that are irrefutable," Avery said in an interview before the screening, " ... and (one of them) is the controlled demolition of the World Trade Center."
By "everyone," Avery means himself and others in the self-proclaimed "9/11 Truth Movement," which includes radio hosts, academics and amateur Internet investigators here and abroad.
"These people," Larry Klein said with a sigh, "simply don't know what they're talking about."
Klein, the executive producer of the Emmy-winning 2002 PBS documentary "Why the Towers Fell," shakes his head when he hears the words "controlled demolition" and "World Trade Center." Since he began investigating every facet of the towers' collapse, he's become acquainted with the rapid proliferation of counter-theories blaming darker forces for the disaster.
"The notion that this one event could bring down a large building is something people can't come to grips with, the same way people can't believe ancient people built the pyramids -- so aliens did it," Klein said. "People can't accept what stares them in the face because it's not conceivable."
"We call it the 'X-Files' factor," said Michael Newman, spokesman for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the division of the U.S. Commerce Department that led the formal investigation into why the towers fell. (For the record: "We saw no evidence of any outside factors: missiles, controlled demolition -- a lot of the things these folks say take place," he said.)
NIST has declined requests to publicly debate individuals and groups in the Truth Movement, and has consequently been branded as part of the broader conspiracy.
"This is the first time a large group of people have questioned our findings," Newman said. "It goes along with the whole environment of the conspiracy theorists."
As with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the conspiracy theories that swirl around 9/11 are frequently contradictory. In the world of conspiracists, debunkers and those with alternative theories are often derided as "CIA disinformation agents" or dupes. The Truth Movement has spawned its own countermovement, including a growing number of debunking sites, some dedicated solely to "Loose Change."
The accusations fly back and forth on blogs and Web forums. Each side has the same basic message to the other: wake up.
Questions, not answers
The filmmakers claim "Loose Change" is designed to pose questions, not to answer them. They cannot explain, for example, what happened to the passengers on the flights they believe didn't crash. But they indeed offer conclusions. Avery's narration sums up the film's central thesis: "Until the government can prove without a shadow of a doubt that al-Qaida was behind 9/11," he says, "the American people have every reason to believe otherwise."
"Loose Change" began four years ago when Avery -- after being rejected twice by Purchase College's film school -- set out to make a fictional thriller about a group of friends who discover 9/11 was an inside job.
His friend Rowe, knowing he wasn't ready for college after graduating from Oneonta High School, enlisted in the Army in the summer of 2001. His first day of basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., was Sept. 11.
"I was like, 'Let's go to war. Let's take these guys out.' I was spoon-fed from day one," Rowe said of his initial reaction to the attacks. He ended up serving in both Afghanistan and Iraq, rising to the rank of specialist in the 101st Airborne Division.
In Afghanistan, Rowe became concerned by the way the military and the media portrayed the fighting. After getting back to the States, he began his 9/11 research. It became "abundantly clear" to him that the official story was bogus. Avery, who had his own suspicions about 9/11, decided in 2004 to change the drama to a documentary.
Bermas, a Fort Plain native and former State University College at Oneonta student, joined Avery and Rowe after the 2005 release of the first edition of "Loose Change." He is now researcher for the team, and a bottomless repository of diverse 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Their base of operations -- shared by a pit bull named Justice -- is a house trailer (rent: $700) on 46 acres dubbed "Camp Freedom." They're currently at work on an edited version of "Second Edition" to fix what they say are minor factual errors (like having the wrong type of bomber hitting the Empire State Building in 1945).
They're selling the film as a DVD for $17.95, and also retail T-shirts and bumper stickers. Many of these products were given out for free at the Bethlehem screening and at other events.
The trailer is also home base for "Loose Change -- Final Cut," which Rowe hopes to submit for January's Sundance Film Festival. It will be the final revision of their version of revisionist history.
In a conspiracist's world, any piece of evidence can be dismissed as fabrication, disinformation or naivete. So what would convince the three Oneonta filmmakers their theories are flawed?
Avery wants to see more unedited 9/11 footage. Bermas wants a satisfactory explanation to how the Trade Center buildings collapsed without explosives.
Rowe, the Army veteran, merely shakes his head.
"There is not one thing that they can do that can dissuade me from what I think," Rowe said. "I know they did it. ... I'm more sure of it every day."
Mark McGuire can be reached at 454-5467 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.