This international documentary series opens its fourth season on an especially timely note with this gut-wrenching docu about last year’s bloody hostage-taking at a Russian school held by Chechnyan terrorists. Suffice it to say that in a summer of missing kids and hungry sharks, few commercial broadcasters have been allocating time to such weighty subtitled material, somewhat undermining the “If PBS wasn’t there someone else would do it” argument leveled by public TV critics.
Drawing liberally from footage shot by bystanders and the terrorists themselves, as well as interviews with massacre survivors, producer-director Kevin Sim delivers a sobering portrait of the horrifying carnage such extremism can inflict. More than 1,200 people, mostly women and children, were herded into an explosives-rigged gymnasium and held for three days, before a half-baked, impromptu raid ended the standoff, albeit at a terrible cost.
Along the way there are glimpses of heroism and fear, of brutality and loss. Eventually, the terrorists stopped providing water or allowing their hostages bathroom visits, with one child dying of heart failure after three days of deprivation.
Relatives, meanwhile, surrounded the school, staging a ghastly vigil as they waited to see who would get out alive. At the same time, government officials exhibited courage (one went in alone to negotiate and exited with a list of demands) and the kind of bureaucratic myopia associated with the old Soviet Union, as a spokesman insists to news crews that “354 hostages” were being held, less than a third of the actual number.
Bill Moyers has assumed hosting chores on the four-year-old series, though his introduction and post-episode discussion weren’t included in the advance DVD provided. Relying sparingly on voiceover narration, the Beslan event is recounted with admirable restraint, though the climactic images of chaos as bloody bodies are carted away speaks volumes.
“All they did was come to school,” one teary-eyed teacher says in hindsight of the children slain, wondering what could possibly ever compensate for the lives snuffed out.
It’s a poignant question, and when the subject involves strange-sounding people in a foreign land — as opposed to, say, photogenic American youths — a series like “Wide Angle” remains one of the few places on U.S. TV where anyone would pause to ask it.