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Children of Beslan
By Ron Steinman


4 out of 4 stars

Rating Scale

“In this film the children of Beslan tell their story.”
That statement from the film says everything. In their own words. In their own time. Their own way. There is no narrator. There are only the voices of the children and an occasional place card that leads us with limited though pointed information to the next step. It is all that we need. It works wonderfully well. These children are the survivors of the 57-hour siege at School No. 1 in Beslan, Russia in 2004. In this powerful film seen on HBO in a co-production with the BBC, more than a dozen children tell the story of the harrowing takeover of their school by terrorists. By the time the siege ended more than 350 died, half of them children, most of whom were very young, very small.

This is a small, classically made film on a big subject, but one that HBO and the BBC should be proud because it does only what it sets out to do and does that with taste and quiet power.

The children who testify are articulate beyond words, more than I could ever imagine considering what they went through. Their memories are clear, at least for what they say, but I wonder what really is going on inside them. They speak with a calm assurance that only comes with an innocence marred by the horrible reality that saw their mothers and friends die wantonly and unexpectedly.

Technically, I found the film nearly perfect. The photography was beautiful. The lighting on the children did not detract from what they had to say. The camera held steady and lingered properly on the child speaking without moving until the child completed his or her sentence. The nicely framed cutaways were useful and intelligently edited. The color sparkled. The sound came through clear and not muddied. The score was suitably haunting and unobtrusive. Thematically the music helped carry the film from sequence to sequence when necessary without it being overly obvious.

In the first part of the documentary a 7-year-old survivor, a boy, running and hopping over the damaged site, carries us along with his breathless narration to those hours of horror. Here the use of the steady-cam was excellent. His memory comes to life as the camera struggled to follow him on his a tour through the rubble of the school that has become a battleground. Interspersed with the tour of the destroyed site there is video shot by the rebels and video shot by the Russian television of the distraught parents, the confused military and the mass confusion.

The children are striking for their cleanliness and doll-like perfection. Their eyes are bright. Their clothes are perfect. Their hair is in place. They look unreal, as if from another time and place. They speak with little emotion and are usually matter-of-fact in their presentations. We, the audience, have become witnesses to what they witnessed through their retelling of history, their oral histories of the event. They are babies, really, who in a little more than two days amassed more horror and suffering than most people do in a lifetime. Because of that, they are old before their time. Sorry for the cliché but it is the only way I know how to describe these chidlren, many of whom lost close friends, are orphans or without one or another parent.

These children seem far older than their years, and far more affected by their suffering than we will ever know. They speak mostly in monotone, as if by rote, an example of the exuberance of childhoods gone forever. It is not only how they speak, it is also in their body language and how they describe events, especially those who think of revenge as an answer to their anguish and unhappiness. The abnormality of their situation is profound. One can only hope their futures settle into normalcy. I do not believe that is possible. According to a recent story in the Moscow Times, many of the children who survived wet their beds at night, have frequent headaches and are obsessed with water, all examples of their inability to cope with their painful memories.

Their community is closer now than it ever was in the past. That helps the children day to day, but there is too much damage already to their still developing psyches and their damaged spirits to hope they will have normal lives in the future.

During the film, a small girl, her hair coifed to perfection, with the look of a doll that made her seem unreal summed up the suffering of the children with a sentence that let us know that the pain will always be present. Tears in her eyes, staring straight into the camera, her voice almost cracking, yet remarkably steady said, “ I don’t remember anything else.”

It is a wonder that she and the other children remembered anything at all. In the end, though it may seem unprofession, I wanted to hug these children and to caress them while telling them that nothing ever again will harm them. However, I know that that is a dream, fanciful and unreal because it is not the world we live in. I know it is not the one inhabited by the children of Beslan. Unfortunately, for them and everyone else, today there are no guarantees that anyone anywhere will survive this life in peace.

All together a remarkable film that should be required viewing for anyone interested in the horror of terrorism gone wild and how people, even the youngest among us somehow survive in an ugly world they never made.

At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.


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