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'Newtown' documentary explores aftermath of Sandy Hook shooting

by John Horn , Darby Maloney, and Elizabeth Nonemaker | The Frame

The bucolic town of Newtown, Connecticut was the scene of a horrific shooting in 2012 at an elementary school. John Duber

Four weeks from today, Americans will go to the polls and cast their vote for the next President of the United States. And while the issue of gun violence hasn’t been a major topic at the debates or campaign, a new documentary hopes to remind people that it’s an issue still worth addressing.

"Newtown," focuses on the 2012 mass shooting in a small Connecticut town that killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary.  Directed by Kim Snyder, who spent three years making the film, "Newtown" examines the trauma of the event on a community-wide level. She interviews teachers and first responders, as well as parents of the murdered children. Some of them, such as Mark Barden, have become vocal advocates for safer gun laws. 

“Newtown” also analyzes how difficult it has been to change those laws, even after the worst grade-school shooting in American history — an event that many believed would be the tipping point in the controversy. 

As Mark Barden told The Frame, he thinks it still will be that tipping point, but the process of cultural change is slow. John Horn met with Barden — who lost his 7-year old son, Daniel, in the shooting — and filmmaker Kim Snyder at the Sundance Film Festival following the film's world premiere.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

What it was like for both of you to watch the film with an audience at the premiere? That was the first time you've seen the film with a large crowd — is that right?

Kim Snyder: Yes, it is. We finished it maybe five days before.

What was it like for you, Kim?

Snyder: It was definitely surreal and [there was] enormous anxiety — normal anxieties were coupled with the fact that I know how difficult some of the material is. And I was particularly preoccupied with the fact that Mark and his family, Nicole and David, were there with me. We built this relationship of trust, but it's been in a cocoon. It's been in their homes. It's never been out and about. I felt such a sense of protectiveness. I kept looking over at Natalie to see how she was. 

Mark, what about for you?

Mark Barden: There were so many different things happening at once for me, internally and externally. Just being part of this experience, and doing this documentary with Kim, is already a huge risk in that [I'm] exposing myself at my most vulnerable, dealing with such a personal, horrible tragedy. And being in that environment with all these people witnessing things, you're really under a microscope. And then, very literally seeing images of my little Daniel and hearing his voice. It's something that I can't even do at home. I can't even sit at my own computer and look at that. I'm not there yet. And so, there it is. And there he is — there's my little boy.

I get back to this very primal notion of, that's our life. On the screen. It's so much to process and to navigate. And at the end of the day I know that everybody who sees this film is going to be hugely impacted. 

Kim, I want to ask you a little bit about your initial idea to approach the families of the children who were killed at Sandy Hook. What were the first conversations like, and was it hard to get people to agree? How important was it that you have the voices of the parents who lost their children? 

Snyder: To be honest, the first seven or eight months I really didn't even think about approaching any of them. I was very interested in the idea of community. And these other lenses— the teacher community and the first responder community. I just felt so respectful of [the parents'] privacy and how inundated they had been with the press in those early months. 

I knew what I didn't want the story to be: I knew I didn't want to make a film about "inside the mind of the killer" or an overt advocacy film. I just wanted to explore the aftermath, the emotional fabric of this community. And at that point, I did come to realize that the epicenter of this had to be some family voices. 

Mark, most people who come to the Sundance Film Festival are trying to start their filmmaking careers. There are a lot of people who do nothing but go to parties. You are here not only with "Newtown," but also "Under the Gun," another documentary about gun violence. I'm just curious what the experience has been like to be at a festival that is so celebratory, when you're here with two movies about the most awful things that can happen to a parent.

Barden: It's an interesting dichotomy. Because, of course I understand, there's this spirit of revelry here. However, as you say, the subject matter of my contribution is deeply intense. I acknowledge that this is a very important moment for our voices to be heard. This is the vehicle for us to get that message out. And that's really, at the end of the day, what we're trying to do. We're trying to raise the consciousness of the American public. We're trying to make this conversation top of mind for people. 

It certainly feels like it is top of mind for some people, and certainly for the President of the United States. And yet, as your film and "Under the Gun" point out, for all of the outrage and the grief, it seems as if in many ways the states that are changing gun laws, are changing to make guns more accessible. So I'm curious about how you think that conversation is changing, and what you take away about what can and might be able to change.

Barden: I see a lot of hope. And, you know, people will say, I thought Newtown was going to be the game-changer and the tipping point. And I agree. I think it is, actually. We're talking about a cultural change here, a social movement. Think of this in terms of marriage equality or civil rights. This doesn't just happen overnight. You have to slowly talk to people. You have to raise awareness so people become engaged and this becomes a topic of conversation. And that takes a lot of time. And that's what we're doing. I'm dedicating the rest of my life, every minute of my life, to this. We're looking at this through a long lens. Just like all those other issues, you're not going to stomp your feet in the halls of Congress and say, Change the laws so we can fix this. It's going to take shifting, changing the attitudes and behaviors of our culture. 

Kim, if the film succeeds in the way in which you intend, what are the next steps? What kinds of conversations and actions does it prompt?

Snyder: I think my most immediate goal with the film was simply to pierce through desensitization. I wanted this to be a dialogue-opener, to take this [issue] out of a more polarized place. I wanted to put a human portrait on it. Sometimes you hear these voices [saying] people are emotionalizing the issue, rather than intellectualizing some conversation about the Second Amendment. How can you not emotionalize what happened to Mark and all these people in Newtown?

What do you think a film can do that the parents of the victims of any shooting, or the relatives or the loved ones of any shooting, can't do? What does it add to the conversation? Mark, if you're going back to Washington, or the film is going back to Washington, is there a different nature of the impact? 

Barden: I think that two of the very powerful components of this film are that everybody watching this will identify with us, and say, That's me. I think, as a society, we have a very natural tendency to either look away — I just can't consume this. Or, That's horrible, but it's not going to happen to me.

And I think this brings that right up in your face. This can happen to you. And you have to be part of the solution. And the second thing is the impact that this has, the lasting devastation — not only on the people that are directly affected, but on these concentric circles. 

The viewer gets a sense that this wasn't just something that happened, and it was horrible, and now we're moving on. You really get a sense of how, how [screwed] up we are, from now on, and how [screwed] up everybody else around us is from now on. And how those relationships are influencing our journey forward. And how our experience is influencing their lives forever now. And I think there's a very powerful message there for people to contemplate.

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