3 Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks airs later this month (September 19) on HBO. Maybe by that time I will have resolved my conflicting feelings about Dan Reed’s powerful but disturbing documentary.
In fifty-nine exhausting minutes, the film deftly interweaves archival footage of Paris in January of 2015. In a seventy-two hour span, attacks from ISIS and Al-Qaeda targeted the offices of Charlie Hebdo and led to a related standoff at a kosher supermarket in the same city.
Possibly, though one of the many ways 9/11 acted as a cultural tipping point was in our realization that the saturation of cameras has led to news being disseminated almost instantaneously. Gone are the days in which anchors (or even field reporters) explained a story to an audience. “You are looking live…” is no longer a sportscaster cliche, it is the new normal.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we are only beginning to explore the psychological and emotional tolls of the visceral immediacy of terrorist images being broadcast directly into our living rooms. In a famous essay excerpted in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, John Updike discussed the cognitive dissonance of watching the Twin Towers burn live and having a hard time processing that it was real because our brains have experienced so many disturbing images through television that they instinctively and defensively dismiss all such images as productions.
In 3 Days of Terror, we see security footage from inside the offices of Charlie Hebdo. We hear eye-witness accounts of the supermarket hostages while seeing film from inside it. Not only do we hear from people who survived unimaginable trauma, we see people who did not. It’s one thing to watch a movie and realize that a character is about to die. It’s quite another to see documentary footage of what you realize are the final seconds of someone’s life.
I’ll stress here that I don’t believe a director has any moral or artist obligation to frame a narrative. The core of “documentary” is “document.” The academic intellectual in me might very well prefer documentaries that educate as well as exploit, that inform and explore the underlying causes rather than simply lead what bleeds. But that is a personal preference.
An argument can just as easily be made that such intellectualizing is a defense mechanism and that films such as this one (or Reed’s Terror at the Mall) force us to look at these events rather than analyze them from a safe distance. I did, for example, argue about Newtown that those who would make policy decisions regarding gun control had some sort of moral obligation to look the results of their policy decisions square in the face. Might not the same argument be made about those of us who would vote for candidates with competing ideas about how to confront terrorism?
As a matter of consistency, then, I think Reed’s film is equally important for similar reasons. But I worry. When talking about gun control, the stakes are high. When talking about terrorism, the stakes are even higher. Americans don’t always have the best track record for pushing beyond the visceral, emotional response created by seeing that which disturbs us. Mass media history is filled with examples such as the Daisy ad or the Willie Horton attack ad that show appeals to fear are depressingly effective even if they tend to oversimplify complex problems.
My real concern is not how Dan Reed uses archival footage to recreate three horrific days in Paris. It’s how those who follow after him might use his film — or the same techniques — for more manipulative ends.