Overview: On Jan. 7, 2015, two brothers belonging to Al-Qaeda in Yemen stormed the Paris offices of the satiric weekly Charlie Hebdo, killing 11 people and injuring 11 others before killing a French police officer. Amidst a massive manhunt for the killers, an additional five people were murdered and 11 wounded in related attacks over the next two days, including a harrowing standoff between police and a third gunman, claiming allegiance to ISIS, at a kosher supermarket near the Porte de Vincennes in Paris. Drawing on exclusive access to hostages, survivors, police, paramilitary forces and intelligence findings and evidence, as well as never-before-seen footage and photographs, Emmy nominee Dan Reed (HBO’s TERROR AT THE MALL) spotlights the courage and resilience of Parisian police and citizens at that time.
Expectations: There is an easy reason to get behind this documentary. It is simply because hindsight gives one the most clarity. I’ll be honest, as much as I try to stay alert to the happenings around the world I don’t stay glued to the 24-hour channels who drone on and over analyze to death any topic. I get my news and get out of there and let them hash it over & over among themselves.
In doing that however, I am sure some details and/or perspectives on the matter at hand are lost to me. But, that is why I look to revisit a topic later down the line, after the spin and sensationalism has died down, to get the full story of the facts after the fact. Hindsight is 20/20, right? I am sure that is exactly what this documentary will give me. It will deliver a through timeline of what played in Paris, France on that tragic day and I will walk away with the full picture removed from the hoopla and emotions of those days in January, 2015.
Gut Reaction: Right off the bat let me say that this was a truly intense and well-constructed video chronicle of the terrorist attack and manhunts that followed of the title crimes. It is well crafted because it utilizes all useful tools from news footage, surveillance coverage, personal phone data and eyewitness accounts to accurately play out the series of events of those three days in January 2015. There are some incredible moments played out for us in real time, not in reenactment. Take for example the phone grabs of the moments when people of the building were able to escape by heading across the roof to an adjoining structure. The stop long enough to hear and comment of the gunshots heard directly below then in the Hebdo offices. The sounds of executions being carried out is chilling. So is the footage taken from the store cameras of the supermarket as the gunman holding hostages there takes lives one by one.
One the days of the terrorist attacks you could have watched news for hours trying to piece the storyline as it unfolded. Here in one fast hour you can relive that time seeing the total picture and hear eyewitnesses recall the scene and hear their of their fear and their loss as vividly as if it were yesterday. You almost wish you could get all the news served to you in this way. There is no question on how the terror played out do to the accuracy of the film maker’s assemblage of footage. It is an important chronicle into the minds and tactics of Islamic militant extremists and an unflinching remembrances of lives lost in the City of Lights.
Bonus: The Pacific Standard site had a Q & A with the documentarian behind the camera. Here is a portion of that session.
Pacific Standard: You’ve now made four documentaries about terrorist attacks for HBO. What got you into this kind of directing gig?
Dan Reed: I made Terror in Moscow almost by accident: I’d just had a child, and I wanted to do something where I didn’t have to travel an awful lot for a long time, or expose myself to anything that would kill me. I thought, “I’ll just go to Russia for two to three weeks and do a lot of interviews and come back and edit the film; that will be simple.” But then it turned into something much better than I thought it was going to be. I got this obsession with getting the timeline [of the events] straight. And I really appreciated, in survivors’ accounts, the strangeness of how people’s minds work in the midst of a very threatening, intense event like a terrorist attack — the things they observe and feel, how they relate to the people around them, how they re-imagine their lives as they confront death. Those Russian eyewitnesses and survivors are still the very best interview subjects I’ve ever had. In the end, you realize that everyone feels similar things, but everyone explains those things to themselves in completely different ways.
PS: How do you and the folks at HBO decide which of these terrorist attacks should be re-staged for TV audiences? Are there certain criteria you take into account?
DR: Usually, if HBO is interested, I’ll do some research on the ground for three or four weeks and see what I can find. If there’s some kind of incredible material that brings insight that I can get a hold of, then HBO will green light it, if they like the sound of it.
As for me, what’s interesting isn’t the horror or the bloodshed, it’s how the story evolves, twists, and turns, and how all sorts of different agencies and people are mobilized, and how the perceptions of survivors who have been trapped for a long time change. That’s the interesting thing for me — it has to have a lot of moving parts, otherwise it’s not a good candidate for a story.
PS: I can only imagine that it’s difficult to talk with subjects about these traumatic moments. How do you navigate the trickiness of interviews?
DR: It’s quite rare that I’ll interview someone on camera without having met them before. That’s very important, so that person can meet me and understand what I’m trying to do, and also get a sense of who I am and whether they can trust me or not. In that first meeting, I listen carefully and share as much information as I can without contaminating what they’re going to say in front of the camera.
In Conclusion: Again, it is quite effective and well-crafted documentary. It is one of the best of the year. See it and get the full story of what went down. As I had hoped watching 3 DAYS OF TERROR: THE CHARLIE HEBDO ATTACKS in hindsight made me clear of the events and I’m glad I witnessed them from this perspective.
Next: HBO Documentary Films: CLASS DIVIDE is the third film in a trilogy looking at growing inequality and troubles across the social classes. It debuts 10.03.16.