On September 1, 2004, a group of rebel extremists took over a school in Beslan, Russia on the first day of classes, holding a thousand people hostage. For three days, more than a thousand children and adults were imprisoned and terrorized in a sweltering gymnasium, denied food and water, and forced to keep their hands over their heads. The harrowing siege, chronicled in “Children of Beslan”, ended on September 3, 2004 with a series of explosions and a hail of gunfire that killed some 350 people –half of them children.
The tragic death toll outstripped the tragic 2002 Moscow theatre siege by Chechen extremists in both the number of victims and horror quotient. In addition to the Beslan dead, more than 700 people were hospitalized, mostly children, many with serious injuries.
Six to 12-year-old children recount the events that left indelible memories, and forever robbed them of their family and friends. The fact that only children appear on camera — no adults are interviewed – brings into dramatic focus the senselessness of the school occupation, as well as loss of innocence suffered by the children.
There are a lot of things on television that can make you weep while watching them (in a pinch, any ER rerun will do), but it’s rare to come across a program that leaves you sobbing in a ball on the couch for some time after it’s over. That may seem like a strange sort of recommendation, but for all its bone-crushing sadness, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a made-for-TV documentary I’d recommend as highly as Children of Beslan, which premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET on HBO. Co-directed by the British documentarians Ewa Ewart and Leslie Woodhead, the hourlong film revisits the terrorist siege that began one year ago today at an elementary school in the town of Beslan, about a thousand miles south of Moscow. For three days, Chechen extremists held nearly 1,300 people hostage in the school’s gym, refusing them food and water and terrorizing them with homemade bombs strung from the ceiling on wires. On the third day, as the bombs began to go off, Russian forces stormed the school. In the end, the siege and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of 331 people, more than half of them children.
Given the extreme nature of the events it recounts, Children of Beslan is most remarkable for its unsentimental spareness. It consists entirely of interviews with children who survived those harrowing three days in the school gym: no adult talking heads, no voiceover narration (though occasionally an intertitle appears to clarify the chronology of the siege.) We don’t even hear the offscreen voices of whoever’s interviewing the children. There are some short clips of news footage of the event, and a few gruesome scraps of video shot by the terrorists themselves inside the gym. But the bulk of the film is nothing but close-ups of individual kids, recounting their memories with a thoughtfulness and gravity that makes you wish that more major news events were relayed to us by people under 10.
In Russia, Sept. 1 is the “Day of Knowledge,” the traditional first day of the school year. The film opens on home-video footage shot by proud parents on that morning last year: Children decked out in their best clothes (black-and-white suits for the boys, huge pom-pom ponytail holders for the girls), smiling shyly at their teachers and chewing on the strings of their back-to-school balloons. Back in the present day, an intrepid kid named Alex leads the cameraman on a tour of the burned-out school, matter-of-factly recounting his memories of the events of that day. Like all the kids who are interviewed, Alex demonstrates an astonishing recall for detail. One girl remembers the dress she was wearing, which her mother eventually requisitioned to mop up a pool of blood on the floor: “It was beautiful and embroidered, and it cost 300 rubles.” A boy describes the color of one masked terrorist’s eyes: “They were black, like black glass.”
The density of heartbreaking detail in the children’s stories is such that it’s hard to single out any one for special mention. A boy tells of how a woman who staved off thirst by drinking her own urine was pestered by onlookers to share it around. He concludes philosophically, “That’s how it was. People even quarreled over their pee.” Another recounts how he tried to use the five roubles he had in his pocket to bribe a terrorist into letting his mother go. Yet another recalls fantasizing that Harry Potter would come to save him: “I remembered that he had a cloak that made him invisible. And he would come and wrap me in it, and we’d be invisible, and we’d escape.”
It’s not until well into the documentary that we find out which of the children interviewed lost someone in the siege: a brother, a father, a mother, a school friend. When this information begins to come out, the children’s composure seems all the more extraordinary. In the end, Children of Beslan becomes not only a documentary about an event too-little remembered outside of Russia (and all too germane in a climate of global terrorism), but a reflection on suffering, loss, and even theology. A girl named Lana recalls how she prayed to God to “save us all, please. … He saved those he could manage to save, and the ones he couldn’t, he kept with him. He kept the best. The most beautiful ones died.”
The filmmakers’ restraint and sobriety leave open the question of how traumatized these kids remain by the ordeal they endured. But the film leaves the impression that, however resilient these children may seem, the seeds of revenge have been planted for the next generation. One boy admits that, since the siege, he enjoys picking off terrorists in violent video games (though, God knows, so do plenty of kids who have never experienced terror firsthand.) Another child builds a schoolhouse out of Legos, making sure to equip it with rooftop missiles. And Alex, the little boy who coolly points out the classroom where his father was thrown out a window to his death, concludes his tour with the chillingly calm pronouncement: “My greatest desire is to go to Chechnya and kill all those terrorists. To avenge my dad.”
If you’re still keeping it together after those anecdotes, you might—might—be able to make it through Children of Beslan without losing it completely. But if you can, I’m not sure you’re someone I’d want to know.