Film Review – Terror at the Mall

Film Review - Terror at the Mall

Film Review - Terror at the Mall

On September 21, 2013, gunmen from the Al-Shabaab Terrorist organization took over Westgate Mall in Nairobi. They occupied the mall for many hours and it became an international story. It was a harrowing incident that occurred in a well populated area that left 71 people dead and even more wounded. Reports were chilling at the time and it was seen as one of the boldest acts of Terror in recent memory.

In what can only be referred to as a masterful display of editing, footage from security cameras interspersed with first hand accounts of the incident have coalesced into the new documentary Terror at the Mall. Director Dan Reed who also narrates over the footage has created an impressive feat of video journalism here. This film shows the events that transpired without editorializing. The true facts of the takeover are gripping enough without having to embellish at all. What is amazing here is how well documented the whole event was. This was a popular mall, so it looks like they had footage from most angles inside the various stores at all times.

Terror at the Mall Movie Still 1

Photo Credit: Courtesy of HBO

The Westgate mall looked to be a very popular place. Interviews of the various survivors include people from Kenya, England, America, and many other areas. So in essence this place was a microcosm of daily life for everyone. You can picture normal people in various parts of the world having the exact same day these folks were before the gunmen entered the building. Shopping, dealing with contentious kids in the supermarket, just going about their day. And then they hear and see gunfire. Some of the scariest footage is early on when you can see the tracer bullets flying over the heads of crowds of people as they rush for the exits. A genuinely surprising sight is seeing people leap over displays and tables trying to get behind cover. Usually one associates that kind of dramatic movement with fictional action films. You think people don’t take flying leaps in real life. But this situation was so panic stricken that scared people were doing whatever they had to survive.

The interviews throughout are earnestly moving. Probably the most harrowing stories came from Amber Prior, a mother who had been shopping with her two children. She got pinned down behind a display case in the main area of the mall and was forced to hide there for many hours as firefights repeatedly happened around her. The gunmen walked by her hideout several times and the main gunfire occurred right in that hall. The footage is scary. Another man recalls the story of hiding behind a counter wounded by a gunshot while watching his wife slowly bleed out and die while lying next to him. On the top level of the mall there was a public cooking display going on that day. The Terrorists mowed down most of that crowd with machine gun fire. A mother profiles her now dead 17 year old son who had attended the cooking class. And all of these stories are supported by truly dramatic imagery that was taken in real time.

Terror at the Mall Movie Still 2

Photo Credit: Courtesy of HBO

Again, there is almost no editorializing in this film. It really is just presenting facts. And yet, just by doing so, the Kenyan government comes out of this incident looking terrible. The military was delayed in their response to mount a rescue operation due to confusion and ill preparedness. Some local police and civilians were able to get a good deal of hostages out on their own when they had grown impatient with the military delays. When the army finally does go in, they end up accidentally shooting 3 policemen, one of those fatally. They had a standoff that lasted for two days and finally decimated the mall itself. The closest the filmmakers get to openly criticizing these events is a dramatic shot of the aftermath of the mall while Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declares “I am satisfied that our disciplined forces have responded in a professional and effective manner.” The imagery speaks for itself.

This documentary is well worth seeing. Please be forewarned, the footage captures real death and violence. You can see a million acts of simulated death in fake horror and action movies, but it doesn’t impact the viewer the same way that real inhumanity like this can. This movie isn’t trying to titillate or fetishize this violence. But on what is close to the anniversary of this horrific moment, it is good to remember what these acts of terror look like.




I'm a family man who got his Drama degree back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and now works at a desk. I love movies of all kinds, and I am still working my way through the list of 1001 movies you must see before you die.

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