At first blush, subjecting the children of Beslan to relive their hostage-taking by Chechen terrorists a year ago — leaving several hundred of their school chums, parents and neighbors dead — seems morally dubious. After listening awhile, however, it’s clear these memories will never be far from them, and their use (OK, exploitation) to relate the story in this HBO documentary is chillingly effective in driving these horrific events home.
That isn’t to say “Children of Beslan” overcomes its narrow conceit. Indeed, it’s in most ways inferior to PBS’ recent “Wide Angle” installment tackling the same topic. That more conventional hour wove in interviews with surviving children along with adults and government officials together with the wealth of video — including that shot by the terrorists — yielded during those terrible three days last September.
Still, seeing these cherubic little Russian kids recount the siege provides its own predigested way to sell the horror, as it were — to put the most innocent of faces on the most inexplicable of crimes. And while audience manipulation is undeniable, it’s nevertheless hard to resist emotion upon hearing one young boy fantasize about Harry Potter coming to his rescue, using that invisible cloak of his to help them both escape.
On Sept. 1, 2004, masked gunmen herded hundreds of children, parents and teachers into a crowded gymna-sium, murdering some of the men immediately and holding the women and children without food, water or access to bathrooms. Some became so thirsty that they began drinking urine before a chaotic firefight that allowed many to escape but still claimed the lives of more than 350.
Filmmakers Ewa Ewart and Leslie Woodhead pick off ripe and easy targets, highlighting how the incident has clearly fed the children’s hatred for terrorists, conveying the sobering message that such violence only begets more violence, even as it erases childhood. “We’re not the same funny kids we used to be. … We’re already grownups,” one child says impassively, a point that’s painfully evident looking into those hollowed eyes.
The really interesting documentary, actually, would be made a decade or so from now, examining how these children’s lives have unfolded, much as Michael Apted’s “Seven Up” series chronicled the development of British youths. One can only hope that the survivors can manage to be kids for just awhile, and that beyond whatever damage the terrorists inflicted, “Children of Beslan” doesn’t contribute its own, less tangible wounds.