‘Newtown’ aims to cut through ‘numbness and denial’ surrounding mass shootings
Dec. 14, 2012, began as a normal day for most Americans and Kim Snyder was no different.
She was sharing a cab with a friend when the news of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, started trickling in. More than three years later, she remembers the somber thought that stuck in her mind: Isn’t it sad that mass tragedies happen so often that waiting for the death toll as the news unfolds has begun to feel normal?
But unlike the millions of Americans who doubtless felt similar despair, Snyder soon got a personal look at the devastation the shooting wrought on Newtown. A non-profit organization asked her in the weeks following the shooting to document the aftermath in short films.
Snyder traveled to Newtown and forged a relationship with Robert Weiss, the priest who presided over the burials of many of the children killed in the shooting. From there, she got to know many others whose lives had been shaken by the tragedy. There were the emergency responders who had first arrived at the scene. There were the doctors who had so desperately tried saving the lives of the mortally wounded. There were the teachers who had been in the school when the horror unfolded. And there were, of course, the families the slain children had left behind.
It quickly became clear to Snyder that there was a bigger story to be told. She called it "a mosaic of collective grief." The resulting film, "Newtown," will appear at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition.
Snyder is hopeful the film slices through the sense of normalcy that now accompanies mass tragedies. She wants it to grab the audience and shake them forcefully by their collars, showing them what life looks like after the unthinkable happens.
"The frequency of these incidents has become such that we’ve become desensitized and inured to it," she said. "I felt compelled in a lot of ways to pierce through that increasing desensitization by telling something that was, on one hand, a gut punch so that people could break through that numbness and denial, while at the same time trying to tell a story that had dignity for the town and was not prurient."
It did not surprise Snyder that America pushed the Sandy Hook shooting to the back of its collective consciousness after a few months, when the news cycle eventually found the next big headline. But it did anger her, and that feeling grew as she got to know the residents of Newtown.
In the film, a father is shown watching old home videos because it’s the best way to feel close to his son who was killed in the shooting. A police officer who was among the first to enter the school that day tells how the carnage of the scene is still etched in his memory.
Newtown is average in nearly every way. Soccer moms drive their children to and from practice, and neighbors bump into each other at the grocery store. But three years later, nothing is normal. The rest of America has moved on, but the people of Newtown are left with a dark spectre that still courses through the town.
"You’re in a little Connecticut community that you expect would be having the sort of humdrum everyday chit chat, and you realize their daily thoughts and interchanges are anything but that," she said. "There’s a profoundness in that. It’s so extraordinary what happened there in such a small place. And it’s extraordinarily horrible that they suffered it as a community."
The cloud of the tragedy remains over Newtown, but Snyder was inspired by the bravery of its residents. They have shown her that people are capable of extraordinary resilience. As a filmmaker, she felt responsibility to do justice to their stories. It was only possible through building trust and a mutual understanding.
"The type of filmmaking that I did involved genuine relationship-building and genuine trust," Snyder said. "What came out of it, and hopefully what is seen onscreen, comes out of an authentic place of connection. It’s very rewarding to build that relationship and feel the intimacy and trust that can start to evolve out of it."
In addition to showing the aftermath of the tragedy, the film explores the debate surrounding gun control through the eyes of parents who began lobbying for tighter restrictions after they lost children in the shooting. Many Americans called for legislative action in the wake of the tragedy, but any national momentum for substantive changes was soon drowned out by partisan bickering.
Snyder is hopeful the film serves as a call to action and a starting point for a civil national discussion on gun regulations and mental health care reform.
"I wanted to take this out of a polarized place that has become so frustratingly partisan for so many people who just want to have a conversation because it involves their children and they’re scared and concerned," she said. "I’m hoping that this film, more than anything else, will open up that dialogue for people to feel a somewhat safer space to just have a conversation that isn’t so porous. I think the numbers prove there is a lot of middle ground."
To Snyder, America’s choice to doing nothing about gun violence is a disservice to the people on Newtown. They know better than anyone what is lost when another mass shooting is carried out and what could be saved by preventing the next one.
"Historically, it was the worst mass shooting of school children in American history," she said. "You start to understand that each time one of these happens, afterwards the retraumatization of the entire community is so profound. They understand exactly what another community is going through. And it does make you feel like we don’t have their backs. It feels sad and unfair."
"Newtown" is an entry in the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition. It will be screened at the following times and locations: Jan. 24, 3 p.m., Temple Theater in Park City; Jan. 25, 9:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1 in Park City; Jan. 28, 8:30 p.m., The MARC in Park City; Jan. 29, 3:15 p.m., Holiday Village Cinema 2 in Park City; Jan. 30, 12:30 p.m., Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City.
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The Park City School District offices were inadvertently locked, but security footage was reviewed and the only two community members who showed up were let in and joined in an informal chat with Board of Education members and staff.