Finding Peace in Award-Winning Doc
By David Crohn

There is a moment late in the film “Zahira: La Que Florece” when your heart finally breaks.

By then you’ve seen Zahira Obaya’s struggle to heal after surviving the terrorist attacks of Madrid on March 11, 2004. She is thanking her boyfriend for washing her wounds, taking care not to let water in her ears.

Her remaining eye, gorgeous and blinking directly into the camera, struggles beneath the weight of those feelings. Someone with apparently so little to smile about does—even when the act itself must be painful.

The film tells Zahira’s story and the story of the aftermath of what Spaniards call 11-M, when Islamists bombed four trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and injuring at least 1,500. The documentary was awarded the Bronze Wagon Award at the Fire Island Golden Wagon Film Festival this past weekend.

Nina Rosenblum, who directed and produced “Zahira,” was in Spain’s Canary Islands on March 11, 2004. She had just wrapped a 15-month shoot on a project about 9/11 and was looking forward to a working vacation serving as a juror at the International Canary Islands’ Video and Multimedia Festival.

After the attacks, she got a call from her friend Mercedes Goiz, the film’s co-producer and a close friend of Zahira’s mother, telling her of Zahira’s injuries. Rosenblum visited Zahira in the hospital and was overcome with grief.

“I was floored,” she said. “I fainted, and the doctors had to revive me,” Rosenblum said.

So Rosenblum—an Oscar-nominated and award-winning filmmaker for TV and movies—channeled her sorrow and set out to tell Zahira’s story, hoping that her “grace” would serve as “an example for us all.”

Zahira, who is now 24, was on her way to her job at a clothing store in downtown Madrid on the day of the attacks. She was expecting a promotion. It was the one day of the week when she had to come in early, the one day when she had to be at Atocha station to connect with another train at that particular time of day: 6:39 a.m.

Zahira lost her left eye and required extensive surgery to repair her fractured face and jaw. The film intercuts footage of Zahira’s recovery and of her family at home along with news clips of the bombings and ensuing political protests.

Beginning with Zahira’s loving boyfriend Julio Garcia, the filmmakers talked to an extended network of people, including a young Moroccan man they met during filming. It was part of an effort to “let the story tell itself,” said story editor Dennis Watlington, an Emmy Award-winning writer and Rosenblum’s frequent collaborator.

We meet Zahira’s friends and their friends, whose dialogue will be chillingly familiar to Americans who questioned the Iraq War in the aftermath of 9/11.

The trains were bombed just before the national elections. The administration, headed by conservative President Jose Maria Aznar, initially told the public that Basque separatists were responsible. When the public found out it was really an Islamic cell with dubious ties to Al Qaeda—and that the government lied in order to stir up right-wing sentiment—they were outraged.

“They’re playing with our fear,” says one young woman in a café, outraged to be a citizen of a country that was then allied with the U.S. in the so-called “war on terror.”

Millions of people took to the streets to take place in massive protests—thanks to the modern technologies of cell phones and the Internet. Three days after the attack, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a liberal opponent, won the elections and pulled Spanish troops from Iraq shortly thereafter.

Through it all, there is Zahira, a stalwart presence of uneasy hope. “The pain, it’s fading away, little by little. But it’s still there,” she says.

Looking for some mysterious purpose or meaning to draw from her experiences, she says, “What will blossom here?” Her name is Arabic for “she that blooms.”


For more information about Nina Rosenblum or to order a DVD copy of “Zahira: La Que Florece,” go to www.daedalus.tv. Dennis Watlington’s new book, a memoir entitled Chasing America, is available in bookstores now.