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.
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.