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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

Terror at the Mall: Director Dan Reed Discusses His HBO Documentary [Exclusive Interview] 

Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

This is not an easy documentary to watch. There are many disturbing images and innocent people are hurt and killed. But through it all, the human spirit triumphs. Documentary filmmaker Dan Reed focuses his lens on the events of Westgate Mall on September 21, 2013. Al-Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group from Somalia, laid siege to the mall for 49 hours, leaving 71 dead and hundreds wounded. Told from the vantage point of more than 100 security cameras revealing hours of previously unseen mall surveillance video and drawing on extensive photos taken during the attack and testimony from survivors and rescuers depicted in the footage and photos, Terror at the Mall recalls the horror of the attack, as well as the courage and resilience of ordinary citizens in the face of mass murder.I had the chance to email director Dan Reed about the project. He talks about why this film is important right now, how he decided who to focus on and the message he hopes people take away from this film.

TV GOODNESS: Terror at the Mall is the third in a series of Terror in… documentaries you’ve done. First was Terror in Moscow, next was Terror in Mumbai and now Terror at the Mall. Why is it important for you tell this story right now?

Dan Reed: “The attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall was a variation on the theme which we first saw in Mumbai, where 5 teams of shooters hit multiple urban targets. Nairobi involved a single team hitting one target, and was a simpler operation. But because a shopping mall is a location that is so generic and so familiar to all of us in the US or UK, this attack was if anything more terrifying than the first two I covered.”

TV GOODNESS: How did you decide which narratives you wanted to focus on?

Dan: “This was partly dictated by the security camera footage: the stories that were best covered by the most cameras for the longest time. We also wanted to touch on the massacre at the children’s cooking contest in the rooftop parking lot, where the second pair of gunmen hit because that is where most people were killed or injured – even though security camera coverage was poor and this limited how long we could spend on that narrative.”

TV GOODNESS: Considering the vast amount of video footage you had at your disposal, did it make it easier or harder to tell this story?

Dan: “The amount of security camera footage was vast – several thousand. In most of it, not very much happens, but we had to check through many hundreds of hours just to make sure. We focused mainly the first 4 hours of the attack, the timeframe within which all the civilians were killed, but even that involved a great deal of labor because we had footage from more than one hundred cameras and it wasn’t immediately obvious how they all linked together. Different sets of cameras had slightly different clocks, so we had to work out the various offsets which would allow us effectively to synchronize the action on all the cameras accurately.”

TV GOODNESS: Even during something as horrific as this terrorist attack, it was refreshing to see people of different religions and ethnicities helping each other. Do you think a film like this could help start a dialogue or at least be a first step in ending some of the hostilities between Christians and Muslims in the region?

Dan: “The fact that in their moment of need, people stuck together and helped one another regardless of status, race or creed gives me immense hope and making this into a feature of the retelling of this story as we do can only send a positive message out there. Bear in mind also that while the attackers were Somali Muslims, so was one of the main good guys who risked his life to save hundreds of people at Westgate. And the plainsclothes cop Nura Ali who can also justifiably called a hero of Westgate, confronting the terrorists in a gunfight and taking three gunshot wounds, one of them life-changing, is a Muslim.”

TV GOODNESS: Watching this documentary is very upsetting for many reasons, including the fact that it took the police and military so long to coordinate a response. Even worse, is that the Kenyan government stands behind the actions of the military. What do you make of that?

Dan: “The dysfunctional response of the Kenyan authorities – barring the small group of cops who went in on their own initiative – is not surprising given the self-serving and dysfunctional culture that seems to pervade some state institutions in Kenya. Clearly saving lives was low down on their list of priorities as the authorities responded to the attack and the lack of urgency proved catastrophic. This, combined with disorganization and the apparent absence of leadership led to tragic delays as the injured bled to death and the terrorists roamed free inside the mall, even though hundreds of armed police and soldiers were just a few yards away and could easily have gone into the building and outgunned the 4 Shabaab terrorists, who had limited supplies of ammunition.”

TV GOODNESS: If people only take one thing away from this film, what do you want it to be?

Dan: “Let’s consider what it was that turned four very young men into unflinching mass-murderers: who conditioned them and what kind of experiences must they have had to be judged suitable candidates for that conditioning. When you take away the Al-Shabaab “mission,” how different were they to the two boys who carried out the Columbine massacre in the USA? My other takeaway is this: if you hear gunfire at the mall, run, don’t hide.”

Edited for space and content.

Terror at the Mall is available any time on HBO GO and will re-air on HBO throughout the month.

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