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How the Sandy Hook Families Grieved for Their Children

The new film 'Newtown' documents how three families tried to make sense of unspeakable loss due to gun violence.

by John Surico
Oct 11 2016, 2:05pm

Still courtesy Moto Films

The first scene in Newtown is a joyous school parade through small-town America. The band plays, the cheerleaders smile, and the homecoming queen waves at the camera. It's shot in slow motion, as if to preserve that idyllic, precious moment in time, before the screen fades to black.

That's when we hear the first of many 911 calls made from Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012.

The next hour and 40 minutes of the film, which is out now in select theaters, is a harrowing encapsulation of how that morning changed the Connecticut neighborhood—and, really, all of us—forever. It is a deeply moving case study of how a community has tried to recover from unimaginable trauma: the senseless murder of 20 kids between the ages of six and seven, as well as six school staff members. It is a stark look at the before and after, with the film's tagline not unreasonably asking, "What remains after all is lost?"

Symbolically setting shooter Adam Lanza aside, the film's director, Kim A. Snyder, follows the lives of those affected by his rampage: the pastor, the janitor, the doctor, the neighbor, the parents, the schoolteacher, and, most important, three of the families who lost their children that day—the Wheelers, the Hockleys, and the Bardens. We watch their home videos, see their tears, and seethe with their anger, as Congress failed to respond with gun control legislation.

The point of Newtown is a simple one baked into all of cinema: to make us feel. "It's not about politics. It's about people," New York governor Andrew Cuomo said at the film's premiere last week in Manhattan. "And it's about saving lives, and saving the lives of innocent people." After the massacre, Cuomo was heralded for signing the SAFE Act, one of the more significant pieces of state and local gun control passed in recent years. (His sister, Maria Cuomo Cole, is the film's producer.)

We spoke with Snyder the day after the premiere about her documentary and what it might take to break our national numbness when it comes to gun violence.

VICE: How did you first decide to make this film, and what was that earliest stage like, approaching such an unreal tragedy?
Kim A. Snyder: I ended up in Newtown about four to five weeks after the tragedy. Honestly, by happenstance, in a sense—I didn't wake up and say, "Gee, I'm gonna make a film about gun violence, and I'm going to go up to Newtown, where 10,000 or however many news cameras are." A not-for-profit I had done some work with in the past called and said they were looking to develop some short-form material in the midst of that. They had some contacts, and asked if I would consider going up and looking into it, and possibly looking into something that would be longer form. So I went up very tentatively and reluctantly. But I had a contact in the interfaith community, and I met with Father Bob, the priest who had buried eight of those 20 children. And I was so struck by the amount of trauma he was shouldering that I really started to think about all of the ripple effects on these towns, and all of the different communities that this must be affecting, outside of just the parents—who, of course, the entire world was crying for.

For me, it very quickly became, Well, I hadn't seen gun violence taken on from the perspective of the entire community, through different lenses. And I hadn't seen it as a longer form trajectory of aftermath. What really happens to the social fabric of a town in the wake of this? That was very interesting to me, and the psychology of it, and the interconnected fate. I just sort of, on a wing and a prayer, started to shoot more and more, together with a cameraman, Derek Wiesehahn, who I worked with before. We just started building trust, and being introduced to others in the community. So it wasn't until nine months later that I met the first of the families. And that was very organic—someone had introduced me, and they thought they might be interested in talking.

At first, I have to think there was a barrier of trust you had to overcome with these families.

Sure. I didn't approach it like the news. I was very squeamish about privacy and didn't cold call anyone. They were very natural—"This person might want to talk to you." The three families that did end up participating in the film, there were a lot of off-camera conversations with each of them in the beginning—very deep, philosophical conversations about what we could do together that wasn't the same as the hordes of news that had been up there. What might be a collaborative thing that would give them a sort of voice on their story, and aftermath? What was interesting to them?

And what was interesting to all of us was to sort of explore the depths of this idea of grief, and collective grief, and what this was like for them, in the hopes for all three of those families—I don't speak for all families—that they could, in some way, as David Wheeler aptly said, "Protect the rest of the world from having to go through this."

As a journalist, I cover crime, and shootings in particular, all the time. And as a journalist, you're supposed to desensitize yourself, in a way. Even at the premiere, coming there as a journalist, I was very upset, and it was obviously my human side that was reacting, and not my journalist side, which is trained not to react. How did you manage that?
I don't see myself as a journalist, in the type of films that I tend to make, in developing these trusts and intimacies. I don't really approach it in this journalistic way. Yes, I did a fair amount of research into what happened, and the details of what happened, but I had to decide pretty early on: Which movie was this going to be? What kind of movie? What could I bring to it with my skills and orientation?

I did not want to make an overt gun-reform-advocacy movie, because to inform wasn't as interesting to me, as an artist. And also, I was interested in trying to help ameliorate this problem. I thought there were a lot of good things that were already out there in the genre, and that was not what was most needed. Both of those things informed this idea that I would stay purely to the concept of communal grief, aftermath, and the point of view from these various lenses. Of course, there are 28,000 people in Newtown, so it's just a sampling of different perspectives. Because there was this feeling of, My God, there are hundreds and hundreds of stories that you could spend years chronicling.

How does this film fit into the arc of your own career, and that of the genre?
I thought back to some of the protests that wanted to photograph the caskets that came back from the Gulf War—that was a big controversy. This was, in a sense, a version of that—a punch to get people to look, and really understand, in one community. And it was this particular tragedy that was thought to be, hopefully, a watershed moment. All of these incidents are horrible, but I think the age and innocence of first graders, that primal memory of first grade, and how tiny and vulnerable these children were, struck the world in a different way. And because there were so many. For everybody, I think it was that point to say, Enough is enough. This is just way beyond the limit of what we can tolerate.

And these parents agreed with that concept. And so, their strength and courage and trust to step up and say, "There's a larger purpose to that," and look beyond their own personal... it was definitely a sacrifice. But I also think it was catharsis, too. And for them to be able to see this idea that there was this, which one trauma expert—who wasn't in the film, but I spoke with—called existential trauma. It was like when JFK was shot: There are these things that affect these people, and yet the entire world is also affected.

You mentioned before the desensitization of ourselves toward gun violence. We seem to be stuck in this vicious cycle that we're left to shrug off. What was it like to make this movie, and to have this violence keep going on in the background even as you tried to document an earlier episode?
It was infuriating to go to parties, and to sense that frustration and defeatism by a lot of people who wanted to change this, saying, "Well, if it didn't happen then, it's never going to happen." But I would watch these parents not accept that. So they were out there, and I felt like, If they're not going to give up, we have to have their backs. And then as these things happened repeatedly, very specifically in Orlando, we'd say to audiences that we do see the conversation changing.

You can't be looking just at this one federal legislative breakthrough, if that's how you're going to define culture shifts. And so we, all together, felt like the film could be part of that tipping point. We can have this film open up dialogue, try to take it out of this horribly polarized place, and we did see, along the way, when Orlando happened, all of these victim communities instantly re-traumatized, each and every time, and go into a total spin. But what counters that was when we'd meet up with doctors like Bill Beggs [the physician in charge of the ER on the day of Sandy Hook], and he'd be so heartened that the American Medical Association has, for the first time, had come out more vocally to call this out as a public health crisis. And that he was saying his colleagues in the medical field were less afraid that they'd be fired for speaking out on the issue. And the same was true for the faith community. In the last year, I've seen more faith leaders say, out of moral outrage, that we have to speak out.

How do you change this cultural sickness, though, if we can call it that?
The promise of the film, and its impact, is to have constituents start having conversations without their communities. And I think that as the country starts to hear this, from different and varied messengers, in stronger unity and voice—their teachers and their policemen and their priests and their doctors and their kids, most important—I think this is how the culture shifted with smoking. From my generation being a kid, it took kids coming home from school and learning, "Secondhand smoke is bad for me. I don't want to be in a car with the windows rolled up." So I think there has to be things that happen short-term and long-term, and this film arguably could help both.

We had premiered the film in Greenwich, Connecticut—its first showing in the state—on the day Orlando happened. The total community was in turmoil and traumatized. Congressman Jim Himes was in the audience, and the next day, he went down to DC and walked out of the House of Representative's moment of silence. We know that anger can be a very good emotion to spur action. I always think of that movie Network with the, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." I feel like the country may be at that Network moment. Maybe they've been there for a long time, but what we want to do with the film is take that sentiment and try to harness it.

We sit here today and know that there's so much to go with that, in the same way that it was for marriage equality. But there was a tipping point when a big stride was made, and I do think we're at the place and time with gun violence. I really do.

In this election, we have one candidate who's the NRA's darling boy, and he's saying he could shoot people on Fifth Avenue and still get votes. He talks about guns and violence in a way that I don't think a presidential candidate has ever spoken about guns. And then you have Clinton, who's a bit more vocal about it, and making it more of an issue. In that context, what do you want to the movie to do?
In the coming weeks, we certainly want the issue to come up much more in the debates. I think that we want, first and foremost, to take this film out to dinner tables and churches. We want people to come to our website, and host screenings that bring the different constituents to the table. So the first thing is for people to put it on top of the table, and not be afraid of, Well, we're just going to be fighting. Open up dialogue and take it out of this highly polarized space, because we know the numbers are there, that nearly 90 percent of the country believes that status quo is not the solution here. And we can't afford inaction.

Beyond that, we do want the film to specifically reframe the issue as a public-health crisis. We're working with folks like John Hopkins, because there is so little research and support. Part of it is just getting the data and research done on gun violence, and John Hopkins is a leader in this. But so much of it is privately funded. And we need to push for the CDC, and changing the way we're able to fund this kind of research.

I think the other thing is to try to reframe this as a humanitarian issue. It should not be a political issue. We say that, "When nine children a day are dying at the hand of a gun, none of those children are registered Republicans or Democrats." We need to look at models in states where there has been bipartisan support, and hopefully whatever happens in this election, those inroads can be made to build more bipartisan support to just make kids—and all of us—safer in our communities. It's that simple.

This interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Information on screenings of Newtown can be found here. It will be shown nationwide leading up to Election Day.

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