Three Days in September (2006)
Starring: Julia Roberts [narrator]
Directed by: Joe Halderman
I watched this documentary on Sunday, but was unsure if I was going to review it. Not many people will have the chance to see it, as it doesn’t yet exist on DVD (and I’m not sure it ever will). It originally aired on Showtime in May, so it might still be in their rotation if you get that channel (here in Canada, it is currently making the rounds on Movie Central, under the title Beslan). Then, even if people had access to seeing it, I’m not sure how many people would be anxious to see it.
I’m writing the review less as a recommendation then, and more so I can share my experience with you, because this movie has haunted me since I saw it. Three Days in September documents the three day siege in Beslan, Russia in 2004, when armed Chechen terrorists attacked Beslan School Number One, taking hostage over 1200 children, parents, and faculty for three days, eventually killing 344 civilians, 186 of which were children.
When the crisis was occurring, I remember hearing about it on the news, but didn’t pay enough attention, probably because the subject matter is so terrible, but also because I was overly focused on the American election. This was an obvious oversight, as this is an horrific tragedy of unimaginable scale, whose victims deserve to be remembered. 186 schoolchildren were terrorised and massacred two years ago, and I barely knew about it.
Simply reading the statistics involved is enough to affect you, but the movie goes far deeper than facts and figures, becoming the most affecting and difficult documentary I’ve ever seen. The whole experience is gut-wrenchingly horrifying, revealing the depths of human agony and the extent of real evil that exists in this world. Interviews with survivors, describing how they watched people get murdered, bombs laced around them, knowing that they and their children would not survive, might just stick with me for the rest of my life. Worse, one of the parents brought a camcorder with them to school that day (in Russia, the first day of school is a celebration called “the Day of Knowledge”, which is why so many people were present that day), which the terrorists took over to film the goings on during the crisis, giving us a look at the horrid conditions and graphic results of the attack. There is footage from this camera that is burned into my brain, and continues to shake me to my core. It is incomprehensible that animals like that exist in my world, who believe using six-year-olds as victims an acceptable cost of war.
As for the documentary itself, its power is undeniable, owing to the subject matter, archival footage, and interviews. It’s impossible not to be powerfully affected when hearing a man describe watching his niece die in the second night after falling into a diabetic coma, then his wife and sister-in-law perish in the explosions the next day, all the while trying to protect his six-year-old daughter. He is a broken, hollow man who has suffered beyond comprehension, with the movie doing all it could to salvage his dignity as he relates his horror.
Unfortunately, the documentary isn’t perfect, with issues in context and set up. Director Joe Halderman chose to focus on the three days themselves, which is the right choice. However, he fails to give proper context to the events surrounding the attack, meaning that to get the whole story, the viewer needs to be better versed in the Chechen situation and the history of the region. They needn’t have focused too much on Chechen demands and motivations, as there are no explanations that would allow their actions to make sense, but some understanding of their issues and motivations might have helped tell a more complete story.
Worse, the movie at times is unnecessarily manipulative. There’s no way to make this movie without it being emotional, so some of the set ups they present with the interviews to enhance the suspense and sympathy end up feeling manipulative. You get a small sense of relief, then think that the movie was stringing you along. It’s a tough choice, because their presentation puts you into the moment that the interviewee is describing, without the emotional out of knowing how things turned out, but the last feeling you want with a movie like this is that you’ve been manipulated.
Finally, the narration by Julia Roberts doesn’t quite work. I’m sure she entered into the project for the right reasons, and her involvement probably helped it get picked up from the Tribeca Film Festival by Showtime. But she doesn’t have the right timbre in her voice to do narration, and lacks the proper gravitas to relate the information of the movie. Ultimately, I’m not even sure this is a movie that needed narration, as there is enough interviews to fulfill the necessary exposition. But, if she hadn’t done it (or someone equally famous), I may have never seen it, so I guess it’s fine.
So there you have it, a review for a movie most people won’t have access to see, and those that do have to ask themselves if they want to spend 75 minutes watching abject horror that will cause you to question the basic existence of good in our world. If you do, you won’t soon forget the story of Beslan, which is especially important if you had never heard it to begin with.