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Terror at the Mall

By Director Dan Reed

When the first fragments of security camera footage emerged from the Westgate Mall massacre in September last year I was transfixed. The few grainy images which played on the news channels showed gunmen on the prowl inside a large modern shopping mall and hundreds of people scattering like a shoal of fish, fleeing headlong for their lives where only seconds before they had been shopping or sipping coffee. I kept an eye on the news after that, monitoring how many new security camera images appeared and wondering how much of what must have been hundreds or thousands of hours of recorded footage had been leaked to the press. Very soon it became clear that there were only a few images out there, and powerful though they were, these unconnected fragments told us very little about the timeline of events inside the mall, or about the civilians who escaped or were trapped inside at the mercy of the roving gunmen. I assumed that somewhere in Kenya a complete set of recordings existed. Although I kept telling myself that if the news channels had not managed to obtain a full copy of the recordings with all their contacts and connections inside the country, I would have little chance of doing so and in fact had never set foot in Kenya before, I reminded myself that this was exactly how I felt at the beginning of another documentary I had made a few years ago about a high-profile urban siege (Terror in Mumbai, 2009) when I read a few excerpts from a transcript of intercepted mobile phone calls between the gunmen in Mumbai and their handlers in Pakistan and wondered whether it might somehow be possible to get hold of the unedited audio recordings. That had seemed like an equally impossible task, but one day there I was, clutching a memory stick containing the full recordings. And so I hoped I might have the same luck in Nairobi. A couple of months later, sure enough, I was holding a drive with more than a thousand hours of unedited security camera footage on it, a vastly greater quantity than had been leaked to the press in the days after the attack and more importantly a more or less continuous record of events on the ground floor - the key location where the four terrorists spent more than 48 of the 49 hours of the siege. At the same time Sasha Achilli my Assistant Producer and I needed to track down hundreds of people who appeared in the security camera images. Sometimes we had just a grainy, blurred sequence of images and little more. Once I had managed to get the footage to play - in some cases that was a technical nightmare in itself - I noticed that the clocks on the various sets of cameras weren’t running on exactly the same time. My editor Mark Towns and I had to work out how to synchronise the clocks on all the cameras, sometimes with the help of events for which we had an independent time-stamp on a journalist’s camera or a visible clock face, sometimes by looking for the same moment of action that appeared in the overlapping fields of view of different cameras. In short it took us many months to analyse the footage, camera by camera, second by second, make sense of it, and then it took as many more months to track down the people who featured in the footage whose stories we thought we might want to tell. By the end of the project we had met hundreds of people - mall survivors, journalists, policemen, civilian volunteers both armed and unarmed, medics, soldiers - and shot interviews on camera with 82 of them, an extraordinarily high number for a one-hour film. In the end, however, the days and nights of scanning and searching paid off and, by combining our material with Goran Tomasevic’s extraordinary, hyper-real bursts of still images shot inside the mall, we were able to tell the story of a terrorist attack in a way no one has been able to do before, from the inside and up close. The terrorists’ casual bloodthirstiness as they revelled in the slaughter still haunts me but then I think of the courage and determination of those three extraordinary mothers - Amber, Katherine and Margie - who made it out of the mall and I think that this film is much more than just a graphic account of one of the cruellest urban terror attacks this century, it’s also a testament to our ability to resist and survive, even without guns in our hands.