BOB GARFIELD: This week marked the anniversary of the siege by Chechnyan terrorists of the Moscow Theater, an episode that ended with the death of all of the terrorists and 129 hostages, most by anesthetic gas pumped into the theater by the Russian security services. Now, using video actually left behind by the terrorists themselves, a documentary airing on HBO presents an extraordinary view of the crisis, the unbearable agony as 800 people sat for 57 hours, waiting to die. [TAPE PLAYS]
NARRATOR: In a quiet moment, the gunman with the video camera focused on his leader.
BOB GARFIELD: That's a cut from Terror in Moscow, airing right now on HBO. Filmmaker Dan Reed says he was astonished to be given access to the terrorists' footage, but says it's still unclear why the video was made in the first place.
DAN REED: That's one of the puzzles. Was it to -- a message to their sponsors? Was it to prove to the people who'd, who'd financed the operation that they'd actually, you know, done this? Was it to have something to brag about later on if they escaped? Or was it to release to the media? We just don't know. But at any rate, one of the gunmen simply waved the camera around. He, he filmed the most extraordinary scenes that I've ever seen inside a terrorist operation basically. It's shot like a home video. He's saying hi to the guys, hi to the girls, you know, people are talking very, very intimately to the camera, saying things, making jokes. It's quite surreal.
BOB GARFIELD: Were there any journalistic reservations in using that? Somehow, ex post facto, carrying out the wishes of the terrorists?
DAN REED:We didn't really have any reservations, because the story of the siege was told really from the hostages' point of view. You know, the people giving testimony are the people who, often who lost loved ones who were sitting next to them, you know, who never woke up after, after the gas was introduced. And I think that kind of counterbalances the sort of gunman vision that you get from the tape.
BOB GARFIELD: Coincidentally, last night I happened to see the new Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill Volume One, [LAUGHTER] and in it, about 75 people get killed with Samurai swords.
DAN REED: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD:There's blood spurting out of people's bodies, like water from a fire hydrant. It's so graphic that at some point, the images -- they just stop being disturbing. Now the reason I bring this up is, I've just ten minutes ago finished watching your film, and right up to the moment I walked into this studio I was having difficulty remaining composed -- the, the violence--
DAN REED: Yes--
BOB GARFIELD: --is simply overwhelming. But it, it's mainly the violence of desperation. It's beyond desperation. It's just this endless waiting for death. It's very difficult to take.
DAN REED: Yeah. Yeah. To make a film about-- people waiting to die, and-- what's more, sitting next to their loved ones, and waiting to die with their loved ones was, was, was really --it was an overwhelming emotional experience for me, and to me this film really is about being a hostage and what people are like when they face death and they know that death is coming.
BOB GARFIELD: Well I want to ask you about that, because the film is just gigantically affecting. It, it is a monumental achievement.
DAN REED: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD:So I, I hope you won't take me as being argumentative when I ask you why -- what do we gain by the exercise of sitting through and vicariously living this terror?
DAN REED: I think we gain two things. I mean on, on the one hand we, we gain an understanding of what actually happened, and that's worth something in journalistic and historical terms. On a deeper level, I think it's kind of reassuring to know that when faced with the bleakest possible situation in your life, that understanding is possible at the end of the day the hostages ended up not really hating their captors. One man, who was the oboist in the, the orchestra said to me, "You know, by the end I didn't hate the women any more. To me, they were like the rain. They were like a storm. They were like a natural phenomenon." It was a disaster, but he had kind of risen above recriminations and hatred.
BOB GARFIELD:The film is almost pointedly apolitical. It doesn't really take sides. It is, however, sympathetic, it seems to me, to one particular set of people, and that is the 19 women they call the Black Widows. Tell me about the Black Widows.
DAN REED: These were young women, most of whom had lost a relative or several relatives in, in fighting with the Russians -- men taken away in the middle of the night; that kind of thing. These women were all dressed in black, with, with five or six pounds of explosives strapped around their waists. They were holding in, in one hand a detonator connected to wires which would set off the, the bomb. In the other hand, they usually wielded a pistol or a hand grenade. So they were very frightening figures, and they sat amongst the audience, and as a result a lot of people had conversations with the Black Widows. And to me, that was something I was very, very curious about. It was an extraordinary length of time for people to get to know their executioners. It wasn't a case of the hostages identifying with their captors. It was simply a case that over the hours and hours of the siege, they understood that these women had basically been hoodwinked or hoodwinked themselves or were just so desperate that they seemed to have no other course of action, and naturally they felt a degree of understanding for them.
BOB GARFIELD:And yielding this chilling moment at the end of the film where one of the Russian hostages considers the question for a moment and decides that had her son died, would she have done the same thing to exact revenge against the Chechans, and the answer she came up with was-- yeah. She would.
DAN REED: Mm-hm. She was a remarkable woman. She had been shot in the course of the siege. She'd been taken away. Her daughter and husband stayed in the building, and they died of the gas. She had a son who she left at home, who didn't go to the theatre, and she says you know, I hate the Chechans now, I hate them. But had my son not survived, I probably would feel like strapping on a bomb and going and blowing myself up. You know, she's living for her son, and she gives us this insight into the mind of someone who's lost absolutely everyone and everything. I felt it was important to end the film on a complex note. It wasn't a case of oh, well, everyone lived happily ever after, and here are the good guys and here are the bad guys. I, you know, there is a bigger issue, which is the war between Chechnya and Russia. And then there's also just the human facts though, which is that you know, I tried to, I suppose, for a second make people think about what drove these women, the Black Widows, to come there and to show that, you know, they were human too, and if a Russian woman can think that way, well so can a Chechan woman.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Dan Reed, thank you very much.
DAN REED: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD:Dan Reed is director and producer of Terror in Moscow, a new documentary about last year's Moscow Theater siege by Chechan separatists. It's being shown this Friday, the 31st and again the following Monday as part of HBO's America Undercover series. [MUSIC]