Peabody Awards: A ‘Shattering’ Documentary About Beslan

May 29, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Elizabeth Jensen

Special to TelevisionWeek

There is no voice-over in “Children of Beslan,” just the often matter-of-fact, sometimes sad voices of the Russian children themselves as they reconstruct the three-day siege of their school by Chechen terrorists in September 2004. When it was over, about 350 of the 1,300 or so children and adults held hostage had been killed by bombs and gunfire, and a city’s spirit had been destroyed.

The Peabody committee called the 2005 program, produced by the BBC in association with HBO Documentary Films, “The simplest and most direct of several documentaries on the subject, and the most shattering.”

A young boy leads a camera crew through the bombed-out rubble of his school, only to end up in the room where his father was killed. A little girl recalls how she didn’t want to take off her dress so her mother could wipe a pool of blood off the floor and make more room to sit because “My dress was beautiful and it was embroidered.” Another boy talks of how he sat hoping that the fictional Harry Potter would arrive with his invisibility cloak to whisk everyone to safety. One child pours soda on a grave as a way to honor a dead friend.

Interspersed is home video of the party celebrating the opening day of school, just before the terrorists attacked, along with excerpts from six minutes of video taken by the terrorists themselves during the siege and news footage of the carnage that ended the standoff.

The Children’s Story

Ewa Ewart and Leslie Woodhead produced and directed the film. Ms. Ewart, who is Polish but speaks fluent Russian, said she first traveled to Beslan three months after the siege and quickly came to the conclusion that “the only way to tell the story will have to be through the kids.” The story, she added, “morally belongs to the children,” who were deliberately targeted by the terrorists.

Through subsequent trips to Beslan, working from a list of the survivors, she and an assistant systematically visited children roughly in the 7-to-11 age bracket and their families.

At that point, she said, “It was about building a relationship.” They would speak to each child for a couple of hours, emphasizing not that they wanted an interview, she said, but that “‘We would like to make this film about you and for you, about what happened to your friends.’ I said, ‘I can’t do this film on my own.’ I managed to create some kind of sense of partnership and responsibility.”

Mr. Woodhead, who became involved in the project in May 2005, said he was “immediately immensely impressed by the level of empathy Ewa had established with the kids.” Only one parent of 140 children interviewed didn’t want to participate, Ms. Ewart said, and a couple of children who were initially interested found it too traumatic to relive the experience. The boy who takes the filmmakers on a tour of his school suggested it himself, she said, adding that she never would have asked him to return there.

Twelve inordinately composed and articulate children appear in the final film. Mr. Woodhead, noting that Russian psychologists had told the children not to discuss their ordeal, said that when the children were being interviewed on camera, “The sense I had was that it was like pulling a stopper out of the bottle; they really wanted to talk.” Parents, Ms. Ewart said, were “grateful somebody still cared, after the media circus left in the end of September.”

The filmmakers were relieved that both the BBC and HBO allowed them to do the film the way they wanted, Mr. Woodhead said, “with no narration, no adults, no experts, no journalists. It is a very, very simple story told by children on a day-by-day basis.”

HBO, he noted, did push for the film’s “uncomforting ending,” in which one girl is shown burning pictures of terrorists and a boy talks of wanting to kill terrorists when he is grown. Ms. Ewart, who originally wanted “some kind of softie-softie ending,” said the tougher ending was more appropriate.

Mr. Woodhead is now working on a film about bringing music back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; he called it a “healing process” after the emotionally draining work on “Children of Beslan.” Ms. Ewart is finishing a profile of Russian President Vladimir Putin.