Terror At the Mall


Is this exploitation, or needed documentation of a modern horror that’s become all too frequent?  It’s a Terrorist assault on a restaurant, mall and supermarket complex packed with afternoon shoppers, many of them women and children. The camera coverage includes dozens of surveillance recordings plus cell phone snaps and images taken by a photojournalist who accompanied brave plainclothes police into the killing ground. Meanwhile, dozens of government troops stood by, as the shots rang out from inside.

Terror At the Mall
The Warner Archive Collection / HBO Documentary Films
2014 / Color
1:33 flat full frame / 59 min.
Street Date April 28, 2015
available through the WBshop / 19.98

Cinematography Mrinal Desai
Film Editor Mark Towns
Location Fixer Tom Odula
Original Music Chad Hobson
Produced and Directed by Dan Reed


Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Reality programming has transformed the culture. TV dramas have been supplanted with cheap crime exposés, and professional variety shows have been replaced by interactive amateur talent searches. Real crime has become the nation’s first line of entertainment, fulfilling the ugly promise of the film Death Watch: “Everything is interesting but nothing is important.” The news is now mostly entertainment, as even the biggest stories – wars, disasters – are formatted and packaged like branded lines. Even the national network shows coddle audiences with cute pet videos from the web. As for crime reportage, private cameras, semi-pro stringer cameras and security cameras record almost anything. Many businesses and most public areas with a tax base to afford the equipment have closed-circuit surveillance cameras. I would imagine that insurance companies insist on them for retail outfits. Robberies, shoplifting and employee misbehavior are can’t-miss entertainment, next only to horrendous car crashes. ‘Voyeurism Are Us’… are celebrities already being harassed by drone voyeurism?

Fritz Lang’s incredibly significant The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse presented a fantasy about a hotel rigged with hundreds of video cameras, by which a criminal mastermind could monitor the hotel guests for purposes of espionage and blackmail. We instead watch public places for signs of crime. A casino’s monitors are constantly being studied. The security team surely acts swiftly when their multitude of cameras reveals cheating or behavior that might slow up the cash flow.

But surveillance video today, at least in the most heinous crimes, comes into play only after the fact. Crimes aren’t prevented, but evidence of what happened may be recorded for study after the fact. Of course, the system only has value if something is done about the causes of the crime in question. I believe it was in Scotland, years ago that two young boys tortured and killed another child, barely a toddler. It sounded impossible until a random security camera showed the boys leading, and then urging, their victim along a public thoroughfare. We can’t save your kid, lady, but we have a memento for you. The video also made the horror into a spectacle. Face it, there’s little difference between enjoying an enacted drama and images from a real-life drama. The media certainly try to blur the line between reality and (sometimes sick) fantasy.

I’ve just seen one ‘reality’ show made from CCTV footage that could have become pure exploitation. Terror At the Mall brings in the issue of Terrorism, a major fear these days almost everywhere. The director-producer has worked almost exclusively in TV documentaries about violent subject matter in the real world. It sounds like a license to make money at the expense of others’ suffering. I expected to have that reaction to Terror at the Mall but did not. The show is sober and well organized. It doesn’t try to hang a meaning on what we see, turn real people into ‘characters’ or allow anybody to use the opportunity as a soapbox.

The place is Westgate, an upscale mall In Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. We can see that it’s an attractive hub for the city’s well-to-do, many Europeans but also an international mix. On September 21, 2013 five Somali gunmen ‘associated’ with Al Qaeda, shot their way into the mall, killing indiscriminately. People were gunned down in a restaurant first. Hundreds fled into a supermarket, where many were trapped behind a meat counter. The gunmen roamed the mall at leisure, while the armed security forces stalled outside, waiting ‘for instructions,’ waiting to ‘form a strategy.’ In a deadly game of hide and seek, trapped people stayed with their wounded loved ones. The killers were able to casually walk the mall, killing anybody they found. Frustrated by the inaction, a handful of undercover police and an armed businessman decided to go in, accompanied by a photojournalist who had rushed to the scene. They engaged some of the gunmen, and succeeded in evacuating women and children who were cringing in corners or playing dead. When the army finally did enter — much, much later — they fired indiscriminately, shooting at least one of the plainclothes police. The soldiers also looted at will. The killers bided their time in a storage area. The army eventually BOMBED the mall. A large fire started. Later on, the government backpedaled and claimed that the Terrorists started the fire.

Terror At the Mall’s credit block has a curious entry: ‘Location Fixer: Tom Odula.’ The show arranged to buy or license various people’s cell phone camera stills and footage, and also hundreds of photos by that professional photographer who entered with the unofficial first responders. But somebody had to arrange the licensing of all that surveillance camera footage. [ Remember, if anything happens to you in public and any kind of camera is present, you image may be used to generate income. In Los Angeles, camera crews are now quick to ask permission, and only Nightcrawler- like stringers cheat and steal footage. Just a few years ago, residents in the poorer areas of town seemingly had few rights — when the cops smashed their doors in, the cameras would come as well. Every few weeks the Chief Daryl Gates would invite the news cameras on a bust. What we’d see on the 10 O’Clock news would mostly be frightened women and children. ]

This ‘show’ is chillingly unique in that much of the coverage has a Mabuse- like thoroughness. The placement of the cameras in relation to the action directs what we see as would a human movie director. On the main mall, overlapping fields of view show both sides of a gun battle simultaneously. The coverage is spotty, but a lot of ‘key’ action is horrifyingly ‘on camera,’ as when a wounded man drags his wounded wife behind the restaurant bar. We look straight down on them, from the viewpoint of a camera most likely positioned to detect employee pilferage. A killer with an automatic rifle strolls just a few feet away. Right in the middle of the mall, three adult women and several children take cover behind a sales display. It’s nothing protective, barely a folding table and a cardboard standee. They’re there seemingly forever, until the rescuers urge them to run for cover. A few feet away, a man keeps changing his mind whether to lay low or flee. Wounded, he still keeps moving around. A killer passes him once but then notices that he’s alive, and shoots him point blank.

The supermarket is pandemonium, like Hell envisioned as a punishment for complacent consumers. The narrator tells us that the subsequent bombing and explosion knocked out some cameras, so there’s no direct coverage of a mass killing behind the meat counter. We suspect that the filmmakers obtained more gruesome footage but were reticent about showing it. As it is, there are only a couple of direct killings on camera. But bodies are everywhere.

Most of the story is told by participants, in video interviews taken after the horror, in some cases perhaps after a hospital recovery. The man trying to save his wife must testify by himself. The women trapped in the mall describe their horror, and also little acts of generosity and valor, such as a solo woman who joined the group and volunteered to help manage getting the little ones out. The key image of the siege is a photo taken by that journalist, of a little girl running to safety, who clearly can’t grasp what’s happening. In the supermarket, the killers seem to have slackened off in their desire to kill everyone they see. We’re told about people being shot because they identify themselves as Christian when asked, or are too slow to proclaim themselves Muslim. A woman with two kids engages them in talk and after a few seconds is allowed to exit. The images are horribly ‘modern’ — she carries one toddler and rolls somebody else’s wounded child in a shopping cart, while her own boy HOPS on one foot, presumably because the other one has been hurt.

Armchair Terrorism experts have plenty of opportunity to churn the stomach acid over the criminal, craven official reaction. The handful of security cops that decide to enter saved scores of people. We see them on the security cameras but they’re also close up and in person on the journalist’s high-quality photographs. One man named Abdul Haji is a hero. He leads the squad, pushes forward into danger and doesn’t back off. Although most of the security men have only pistols they press the fight against automatic rifles. Abdul is soon shot in the stomach. Outside, a hundred troops stand in reserve, listening to the noise. Their leader engages in arguments and does nothing.

The docu has surely become a study item for Terrorists, which of course makes us think, ‘why does the media always show things in such detail’ — even though we once chided censorship that thought it right to ban any depiction of criminal activity in films. In this case, I think we need to see some films like this. We can see for ourselves that there is no defense against this kind of attack in any normal society. Even with security roadblocks every few feet, men with guns can always find a way to get through. As I write, I’m watching the cops make a big show of protecting the Super Bowl, which will indeed be a safer event for their efforts. But potential killers will have no shortage of softer targets. Here in the U.S., peace officers will rush pell-mell into danger to protect lives, especially when a school is the target. The image given of the response in Nairobi is that the army officer in charge simply wants to collect his pay without taking any risks or assuming any responsibility. His troops are so undisciplined that there would surely have been a downside to an assault – with more victims shot by the army itself.

There’s a lot to think about in Terror At the Mall. What we see is no different than a kid’s game of hide & seek, but with awful consequences — we see bodies but are mostly told rather than shown most of the 71 victims died. The show’s tagline ‘Terrorism meets Heroism’ is the only tacky thing about the show. The big lesson is that, in a situation like this, you’re utterly on your own. The only solution, a very difficult one to make work, is to detect these things before they happen.

The present escalation of violence, misdirected media outrage and obscene political opportunism makes Terror At the Mall seem a responsible piece of reporting. I found myself thinking, I’m glad my parents didn’t have to see this. I also recalled the experience of seeing Luis Buñuel’s surreal black comedy That Obscure Object of Desire way back in 1977. That movie ends (and maybe begins) with terror bombings in a Spanish shopping district. The blasé hero tries to act unexcited, as he sees smoke maybe a block away, and looks at a broken store window. In 1977 the scene played as a fantasy, possibly in bad taste. Now we think that, even though the experts tell us the odds are very low, being personally involved in a Terror event is quite possible.

The Warner Archive Collection / HBO Documentary Films DVD-R of  Terror At the Mall is a fine encoding. The new interviews are professionally recorded. Most of the surveillance footage from dozens of cameras is very good — sometimes too good — and shows us clearly what’s going on. At a few points the journalist set his digital still camera in a mode that snaps exposures every second or so, yielding a stylized ‘assault scene’ one might see in a fiction film. There are no extras.

What we remember are the faces of women and children in the crisis. They look like photos from WW2, with German soldiers flushing out helpless civilians in Eastern Europe and Russia: ‘Hold the child tighter. Believe that things will be okay and maybe they will be.’ It’s very disturbing.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Terror At the Mall DVD-R rates:
Movie: Good and something to think about
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 17, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson