Showtime film's title, "Three Days in September," refers not to 9/11 but to the infamous attack 5,000 miles away and three years later in Russia where Chechen terrorists stormed a school and took some 1,200 hostages. Multiple Emmy-winning director/co-writer/producer Joe Halderman pulls off a remarkable feat -- a docu with all the orchestrated drama, tension and human interest of a breaking news story and none of the dead time. Pic never slides into facile sentimentality or exclamatory horror, remaining lucid and straightforward throughout. Conceivably, Julia Roberts-narrated docu could attract global attention after its May cable bow.
The siege is largely related through the testimony of six eyewitnesses, some prisoners inside the school, others who waited outside. The parents and teachers who were inside recount the impossible conditions that reigned for three days among the more than a thousand adults and children jammed into an airless gym with no food, water or sanitary facilities and made to sit silently under crisscrossed bombs hanging just over their heads.
What is most amazing about the film's depiction of these grim events is the nature of the images that accompany the seamlessly interlocking account, and their gradual introduction into the fabric of the presentation.
The first day of school is a holiday in Russia, and home movies of past opening day ceremonies give way here to scenes recorded on the morning of the takeover. Then, as witnesses describe the conditions, viewers are teased with short glimpses that appear to be shot inside the gym.
These glimpses reoccur frequently and in longer excerpts as the witnesses' commentaries describe the lethal booby traps. Only gradually is it revealed that the images were taken by the terrorists themselves with a confiscated camera, later found in the rubble by local teens.
Surprisingly, the sequences filmed outside the school show no hint of reporters or camera crews but only distraught parents. Thelack of media frenzy somehow adds to the integrity of the harrowing occurrences, granting the viewer a sense of first-hand observation.
Incidents are described in chronological order and with commendable clarity. Photographs and home movies of the children are interspersed throughout, establishing the kids as characters whose ultimate fates are withheld until the end, keeping the viewer in suspense.
As the final battle rages, cameras capture emaciated children, stripped to their underwear because of the heat inside, jumping from broken windows and darting out from behind shattered doors. After the bloodshed finally ceased, 330 were dead, 175 of them children.
Tech credits in all aspects are superb. Voice-over translations never step on the overt emotionality of the Russian language testimony, retaining the mood in smoothly segued transitions.
Editors Michael McHugh and Michael Vele, sensitive to the ways in which individual sagas dovetail with the larger canvas, have sustained the sense of chaos, interminable waiting and impotence without ever sacrificing clarity. Lensing by Anatoly Rudakov and John DeTarsio is as impressive in media res as it is evocative in its handling of the aftermath.
Camera (color, DV) Anatoly Rudakov, John DeTarsio, David Grout; editors, Michael McHugh, Michael Vele; music, Richard Fiocca; sound, Gennady Dudakov, Sergei Eliseev. Reviewed at Tribeca Cinemas, New York, April 10, 2006. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- Discovery.) Running time: 81 MIN.
Narrator: Julia Roberts.