An Hour-by-Hour Documentary on the Charlie Hebdo Attacks

British director Dan Reed made the documentary Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks, which recounts the attacks against French newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket in January 2015. The French version — Janvier 2015 : au cœur des attaques — was shown on the France 2 channel in January 2016. The original version will be available in the United States on HBO on September 19.

France-Amérique: Following on from your documentaries on the attacks in India in 2008 (Terror in Mumbai), in the Moscow subway in 2010 (Terror in Moscow), and at a shopping center in Kenya (Terror at the Mall), why did you choose the Charlie Hebdo attacks as your next subject?

Dan Reed: I am a staunch Francophile. I lived in Paris as a student, and I have many French friends. I felt particularly affected by the events in January 2015. The other reason is that the Charlie Hebdo attacks were spread over three days, like a novel with different chapters, plot twists and characters. This complex, traumatic situation deserved to be explained.

French news magazine Le Nouvel Obs described your documentary as an investigation “of surgical precision”. How did you organize filming?

Our film offers an hour-by-hour account of the events of January 7, 8 and 9, 2015. Our initial work was journalism-based, and we spent months investigating. This meticulous process is invisible on-screen, but is essential for a documentary. The investigation offers a narrative structure. We then interviewed almost 50 people in Paris, including police officers, members of the RAID and the GIGN (elite French law enforcement units), government staff, witnesses, a street sweeper, an emergency doctor and one of the cashiers from the Hyper Cacher supermarket.

The on-screen interviews are intimate and poignant. Given that the witnesses were still traumatized, how did they react to your camera?

We put an enormous effort into convincing people to open up. The French were quite defensive about their feelings, and of course more sensitive about the subject. In fact, the French version of the documentary was edited to remove the most violent images.

How did you construct the visual aspect of the documentary?

We intertwined photos and archive footage with interviews. It’s a very factual documentary. I wanted to use intimate witness accounts as a base for reporting on a historical event. We decided not to use any graphic elements like charts or reenactments, and relied solely on a soundtrack to give the narrative an epic pace. We managed to avoid creating something vulgar or cheap, which was a concern voiced by the French people we worked with.

At the end of the documentary, the Chief Prosecutor of Paris explained that this sort of tragedy would happen again. Do you not find this conclusion a little too distressing?

Yes, Chief Prosecutor François Molins did say it was difficult to predict — and therefore prevent — these sorts of events. It’s a sobering reality. I remember our final interview on November 13, 2015, at 6pm. We had just finished talking to Jean-Pierre Tourtier, the Chief Medic of the Paris Fire Brigade. He finished by saying that while the terrorists had the will to kill for their ideals, the French had the will to stand against terror. Just hours later, he was wading through pools of blood at the Bataclan concert hall. I tried to offset the words of the Chief Prosecutor with those of Jean-Pierre Tourtier, who highlighted the psychological strength of the French people. It offers us a little hope.