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Meet the Filmmaker Who Recreates Terrorist Attacks for HBO

An interview with Dan Reed, the network’s go-to film director for covering—and helping audiences understand—grisly urban sieges.
Filmmaker Dan Reed attends the New York premiere of Three Days Of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attack.

Filmmaker Dan Reed attends the New York premiere of Three Days Of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attack.

Film and television director Dan Reed lets out a hollow laugh when he recalls his six-year-old daughter asking him when he would be going to make a film that she might be allowed watch. Reed, a former war-documentary filmmaker, specializes in helming non-fiction films about modern terrorist events. These documentaries air in the United States on HBO and are all preceded by a fittingly intimidating disclaimer—they are called (in order by year) Terror in Moscow, Terror in Mumbai, and Terror at the Mall. “Unfortunately, not a single film I’ve made is suitable for children,” Reed says.

Also unfortunate: This skill set has been in demand of late. Reed made his first “Terror In” film—as he calls them—in 2003; he’s directed three more in the last seven years. Reed didn’t set out to make his latest, Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks, which debuts tonight on HBO and covers the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the ensuing three-day manhunt of the Hebdo shooters, and the separate Porte de Vincennes siege—the director initially wanted to stop at three. But when HBO called to gauge his interest, the self-proclaimed Francophile couldn’t resist. “I felt like they’d attacked my country,” he says.

In Three Days of Terror, Reed’s distinctive storytelling style is on full display: The film meticulously re-constructs the timelines of the multi-day attacks, broadcasts raw footage displaying interactions between gunmen and hostages, and solicits intimate eyewitness, authority, and hostage testimonials—all to an emotionally soaring score. Nevertheless, Three Days of Terror tells a very different story than 2003’s Terror in Moscow—which covered the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis. In the Charlie Hebdo shooting, mass bloodshed and terror seemed to be the terrorists’ end goal; in Moscow, the hostage-takers were demanding political change—that Russian military forces leave Chechnya and conclude the Second Chechen War.

After covering 14 years of urban sieges, Reed’s films have indeed become important documents of the changing nature of terrorism. Pacific Standard spoke with Reed about what he’s learned in the process of making them, and how the filmmaking process has affected his interview subjects’ psyches—as well as his own.

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You’ve now made four documentaries about terrorist attacks for HBO. What got you into this kind of directing gig?

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.

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?

The criteria are very concrete: Is it an urban siege that lasts for several days? Is it complex? Is it an event that people will still be curious about in a year’s time? Has it had a big impact? Is it an event where people won’t understand what happened behind the scenes? There aren’t really very many attacks that fit the bill, fortunately.

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.

What are the challenges that are specific to production on making documentaries about terrorist attacks?

There’s a lot of classic journalistic heavy lifting, getting hold of stuff that no one else can get. And then there’s a huge amount of work involved in tracking down all the people you want to interview on camera. In Nairobi, for instance, we tracked down somewhere in the range of 250 to 300 people, and we interviewed on camera about 85—and this is in a city where, probably, driving from one end of the city to the other will probably take you the better half of the day. Most journalists will meet five or six people for a story and we’ll meet hundreds.

[The interview process] is itself very arduous—a lot of people have to be met with several times before they’ll agree to talk; the press has often given them a rough time, or has misreported their story, and the last thing they want to do is talk to another journalist. There’s a huge amount of coaxing and cajoling to do.

A scene from Three Days of Terror.

A scene from Three Days of Terror.

Finally, when you have all your material, and you’ve also worked out how to give the city a real presence in the film, sometimes you have an amazing interview that doesn’t correspond to a particularly significant moment in the timeline. There’s a lot of work to really create a movie out of all these tiny, disparate, granular elements. And I say a movie, which suggests fiction—but every single frame and every word is cross-checked; we don’t take any liberties at all with the accuracy of the material.

I can only imagine that it’s difficult to talk with subjects about these traumatic moments. How do you navigate the trickiness of interviews?

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. And also I try, on the first meeting, to never get them to tell the story, because once they’ve told the story once it won’t be the same the second time. I call it “nibbling around the edges”: I try and determine what story they can tell, and what part they can play in the telling of the event, but I always stop short of actually getting into what they experienced in detail, because I want to save that for the camera interview.

You’ve made films about terrorist attacks from 2003 to 2016, from the George W. Bush to the Barack Obama presidencies. How have you noticed that the nature of terrorism has changed in that time frame?

What you find in these attacks is the change in the character of terrorism over the last 30 years. Terror in Moscow focused on a group that had an old-fashioned territorial grievance: The gunmen were Muslims, and they were Islamists, but their demand was to get the Russians out of Chechnya—that was a concrete negotiating position. But in [the next film,] Terror in Mumbai, the purpose and the message was mass slaughter, to just terrorize people without any really clear negotiating position. It was part of a new way to do terrorism, which continued with Terror at the Mall. The mall was a random attack, it was [terrorists] picking a target full of people they didn’t like and killing them, without making any demands. Charlie Hebdo was a little bit different because it was an attack on a target—these people had the temerity to draw cartoons.

Random attacks are now much more common, and they’re attacks that seek to polarize the population of a country and opinion and to create hatred and an environment in which the people who sent the terrorists to do these things gain more power and more money. But there’s no actual negotiating positions—all four situations are called “urban sieges” when people describe them in the press, but, actually, Terror in Moscow was the only siege in that hostages were held and demands were made.

What do you hope viewers walk away from your films understanding about these attacks?

There are several things. On a basic [level], I think it’s just good for people to receive a truthful analysis and re-telling of these complex, important, high-profile events—otherwise, everything we learn is from 20-second news flashes or talk show interventions. A byproduct of that is that we can have a better understanding of what we can do either to escape or to counter-act these events. Third, this kind of storytelling [helps us come to] an understanding of the terrorists and what kind of man and woman does this—who they might be. The little glimpses of insight we get into the motivations and the character of the terrorists can inform conversations—clearly these people are wrong, that’s a given, but if we can start getting a glimpse or insight into our enemy and also how he or she became our enemy from being just another young man [or woman], I think that’s valuable.

Finally, what I find moving and value is also that these films bring together a lot of survivors. You get a kind of chorus effect, a collective, loud “fuck you” to the terrorists and what they did. Because here are a lot of people saying “we lived” and we for the most part behaved honorably, or we did things that we never knew we were capable of, either to help other people or just plain survive. That is a very important thing for me.

What has the effect of directing these films had on you?

I like to think that I’m not too badly damaged, but I do carry with me wherever I go, all the time, a sense that really bad things could happen at any time. I’ve interviewed so many people who have begun the interview by saying, “It was a day like any other”—and then there is this incredible, instantaneous shift in their fate, and suddenly they are experiencing the very worst thing that could possible happen to them. I’ve interviewed hundreds, if not more than a thousand people, who have used that exact turn of phrase.

I’m haunted by the collective experience of the people I’ve interviewed, and whose stories I’ve told, possibly even more than being in war zones myself and directly witnessing things, or directly being threatened or shot at. But that’s terrorism for you, isn’t it? Terrorism creates that fear that, at any time, in any walk of life, that at any time they could get to you, suddenly interrupt your life, and shoot you down in cold blood just for being who you are, just for being part of a group that you’re part of.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.