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'Wide Angle' explains the world


It was the first day of the fall semester at School No. 1 in the Russian town of Beslan. More than 1,000 elementary schoolchildren and their parents were on hand celebrating the return to the classroom when the hooded Chechen gunman arrived - locking down the school, booby-trapping the windows with explosives and herding everyone into the gymnasium.

Thus, began a chaotic three-day standoff in September that would end in a tragic firefight with hundreds of hostages killed - most of them children. It was the bloodiest act of terrorism in Russia since Chechnya declared independence in 1991.

Beslan: Siege of School No. 1, a chilling 45-minute film that launches PBS' fourth season of the Wide Angle series of international documentaries, tells the story of what went on inside and outside the school for those three days. It includes videotape shot by the terrorists in the gym where children were held without food and, in some cases, water. After a while, the hostages were even denied the use of bathrooms.

A warning: The images are graphic, especially when the shooting begins and bodies start to fall. But a public television series that promises to deepen viewers' understanding of the world cannot ignore such harsh images and expect to be taken seriously. This is, after all, a film about a terrorist act - and the response by a Russian government that seemed bent on meeting violence with even more violence.

One of the hallmarks of Wide Angle is its commitment to telling stories without using voice-of-god, on-camera correspondents like traditional newsmagazines such as CBS' 60 Minutes. Instead, the goal is a character-driven narrative that makes viewers feel as if they are in the middle of the story.

Beslan: Siege of School No. 1 succeeds in that effort. The film opens with the questioning of the only surviving terrorist. As the narrative shifts from his interrogation to the events of last September, these are made to seem present tense through the skillful blending of news footage, videotape shot by the terrorists and evocative interviews with parents, children and teachers who survived the ordeal.

One mother chronicles the way in which a hostage was randomly killed and left to lie among the children as a warning of what could happen to them. Her account is intercut with videotape shot inside the gym of a hooded gunman standing with his boot on a detonator linked by wire to explosive packs placed around the room. Children are seen on the tape staring wide-eyed at the gunman.

Another survivor recounts how her young son died in her arms before the shooting even started. He died as a result of being denied food and water during the ordeal, she says. Her vivid and heartbreaking account of her son's slow and tortured dance with death is followed by news footage from September of a Russian government pediatrician reassuring relatives of those held in the school that children can go well beyond three days without water and suffer no ill effects.

The government used the local media to try to sell such reassurances to the armed crowd of relatives gathered outside the school even as it summoned tanks and anti-terrorist commandos to Beslan to end the siege by force. It is not clear what touched off the final violence - whether it was an explosion in the school or overreaction by armed relatives and government troops outside. What the film makes clear, however, is that the government mismanaged the crisis from beginning to end.

Even though the siege was widely reported, with some calling it "Russia's 9/11," this is still a film that begs for explanation and context - a sense of the history of the conflict between Chechnya and Russia, and how this event fits (or does not fit) with the popular perception of Russia as a land of democratic reforms after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The title of Wide Angle this year has been amended to Wide Angle with Bill Moyers to highlight the addition of the veteran correspondent as anchorman for the series. Moyers provides orientation with a brief introduction to the film, and then deftly delivers context at the end through an interview with Peter Baker and Susan Glassner, authors of Kremlin Rising, a look at life inside Russia today. They connect the bloodshed at Beslan to the harsh repression of Chechnya at the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With networks cutting back on foreign coverage because it is deemed too expensive, and cable channels offering less because of an alleged lack of viewer interest, there is a great need for TV series like Wide Angle. World-shaking events like the bomb attacks last week in London don't happen in a vacuum. Wide Angle is one of the few TV series that goes behind the headlines of such stories to help viewers make sense of the world.

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