I love classic westerns, which feature guns and shootouts galore, and can enjoy a well-made crime drama with both the cops and the bad guys packing plenty of firepower. Guns are part of “wild west” frontier mythology and a staple of modern warfare. Guns and violent circumstances go together. But what happens when the resort to firearms pervades society as a whole, when guns are as common as butter? In the United States, where gun ownership has been elevated into a sacred constitutional principle safeguarding the citizenry’s “right to bear arms,” the toll of daily gun violence has reached pathological levels.
The latest outrage in Orlando, the deadliest in U.S. history, appears to have had a terroristic aspect (it is certainly a horrific hate crime). But in most years more Americans die from shooting accidents involving toddlers than for any political reason. Small children have been among the targets of mass shootings using semi-automatic assault weapons legally obtained. Yet even the most modest attempts at gun control have faced fierce political opposition. A lot of ordinary people obviously love their guns and distrust government restrictions.
It’s hard to ignore America’s omnipresent gun culture. The country leads the world in per capita gun ownership. In a previous column on Sundance Film Festival highlights I noted that for the first time there were security searches at all entrances and signs everywhere — including at the press tent — indicating firearms were not permitted. At some venues there were police and police dogs stationed. Perhaps organizers were spooked given the gun-related subjects of some films. Indeed writer-director Tim Sutton’s drama Dark Night presented a chilling tale of violence invading a suburban movie theatre, evoking parallels to the 2012 mass shooting inside an Aurora, Colorado, multiplex during a screening of The Dark Knight.
Is this atmosphere of generalized heightened threat the new normal? One hopes not. The American documentaries below that premiered at the Sundance, South By Southwest, and Tribeca film festivals shed light on the epidemic of gun violence in America and on several of the worst incidents of mass shootings and their aftermath, raising troubling questions for society at large.
Directed by Stephanie Soechtig, with narration by journalist and executive producer Katie Couric, this is a comprehensive and extremely sobering examination of the extent of the gun problem. It begins with a startling statistic: “Before this film is over (110 minutes), 22 Americans will be shot . . . six of them will die.” The average annual gun death toll over the last five years is 33,000. In the wealth of data presented are some truly striking findings: since 1968 more Americans have died from domestic gunfire than from all U.S. wars combined; since 2001 for every American killed by terrorism anywhere in the world 1,000 have died from guns inside the U.S.; from 2004-2014 over 2,000 suspects on the terror watch list legally purchased guns in the U.S.; there are more gun stores in the U.S. than McDonalds and Starbucks locations combined. With the National Rifle Association (NRA) taking more radical positions from the 1970s onward, the gun lobby has been remarkably successful in loosening restrictions and preventing the passage of legislative reforms. (The NRA has strongly endorsed Trump for president.)
Soechtig doesn’t just overwhelm with facts and expert views. She also delves into the stories of those most affected by mass shootings. For example, there is the Barden family of Connecticut whose seven-year-old son Daniel was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, and former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who survived a deadly 2011 attack. Many are involved in local, state and national efforts to curb violence. The Bardens have established the What Would Daniel Do Foundation. Giffords and her astronaut husband Capt. Mark Kelly have launched the organization “American for Responsible Solutions.” Ironically, however, the reaction to mass shootings has tended to increase gun sales and Soechtig acknowledges how hard it will be to reverse this trend. On the pro-gun side she includes interviews with spokespersons for Open Carry Texas and the Virginia Citizens defence League, which wants to make gun-free zones illegal.
Clearly gun-control activists face major challenges. Among those profiled is Rev. Michael Pfleger, an outspoken Catholic priest who has worked for many years in crime-ridden areas on Chicago’s south side. He has led protests against “bad apple” gun shops responsible for many of the guns used in Chicago crimes. (Nationwide about 90 per cent of crime-related guns can be traced back to five per cent of gun dealers.) Pfleger has been targeted by the NRA and received death threats. Others have had to overcome personal tragedies in the ongoing struggle to achieve safer saner outcomes that will actually reduce the shocking numbers of gun fatalities.
This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the first mass school shooting in the U.S. on August 1, 1966, when a deeply disturbed 25-year-old ex-Marine and engineering student Charles Whitman went on a killing spree. Mounting the 28-storey observation tower of the University of Texas at Austin he began firing at random, shooting 49 and killing 16 before being gunned down after 90 minutes of horror and panic. Appropriately the film, by Austin director Keith Maitland, premiered at the South By Southwest Festival a short distance from where the tragedy took place. In introducing it, festival co-founder Louis Black remarked how those events “sliced into our community in ways we have still not healed from.”
Maitland’s recounting is an extraordinary work of recreation, recollection, and reflection on the part of survivors, many of whom were present for the Austin screening. The sequence of terror is captured through archival footage shot by a local reporter on the scene combined with life-like animation, using digital rotoscoping techniques, to remarkably powerful effect. On this blistering hot day among the first to be shot were Claire Wilson, eight months pregnant, and her fiancé Thomas Eckman, who was killed. Lying on the burning hot concrete she survived, though lost the baby. Another female student risked her life in coming to her aid. In the midst of the shock and confusion other wrenching personal stories are told, including the heroic actions of a store manager and police officer who finally ascended the tower to confront the shooter.
Another strength of the film is its examination of the social context which was recognized at the time as linked to a “culture of violence.” Indeed in a clip from CBS anchor Walter Cronkite’s coverage he suggests, “It seems likely that this crime was society’s crime.” Rather than being embittered, Claire Wilson became a civil rights activist and adopted an Ethiopian orphan boy. In the film she says of Whitman: “I can’t hate him. I forgive him. How can I not forgive? I’ve been forgiven so much.” Wilson, who spoke during the Austin post-screening discussion, is outspoken on the subject of guns, having testified against “open carry” laws in Texas. “It’s already a volatile world. We don’t need to toss matches into it.” Ironically, this August 1, on the same day a memorial is to be unveiled to the Texas tower victims, a “campus carry” law will go into effect.
Tower, which received three major awards at South By Southwest, is scheduled for television broadcast on the PBS “Independent Lens” series.
Kim Snyder’s Newtown, which premiered at Sundance and was also at South By Southwest, explores with great sensitivity the events and consequences of the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre of 20 first-graders and six adult staff at the Sandy Hook elementary school in normally quiet Newtown, Connecticut. We hear some of the panicked 911 recordings and voice messages from that terrible day. But Snyder doesn’t show any images that faced first responders in the school (it’s enough to imagine the impact of exploding assault-weapon bullets — 154 were fired — on little bodies) and she never mentions the name or shows the face of the shooter, a young man who had first killed his mother with one of her arsenal of legal guns.
The focus is on the affected families, their efforts and those of the community to heal and to work toward the prevention of such tragedies, to turn their trauma into a constructive movement for change. Among those profiled are the Bardens, also featured in Under the Gun, the Wheeler and Hockley families, who share intimate home videos and have been leaders in campaigns for stricter gun-control measures, unfortunately with little success to date. Nevertheless their efforts are ensuring that the memory of their murdered children isn’t forgotten. Newtown is also scheduled for broadcast on the PBS “Independent Lens” series.
While Newtown is accompanied by a haunting musical score from a multitude of composers, director Lloyd Kramer’s Midsummer in Newtown, which premiered at Tribeca, is about the power of music and art in the process of recovering from the tragedy. The project to stage a musical version of a Shakespeare play featuring local students and professionals was the brainchild of producer Tom Yellin and theatre director Michael Unger. “A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream” was the result, the exuberant performances of which lifted the spirits of affected families and the community as a whole. Among the child players profiled are Tain Gregory and Sammy Vertucci, both survivors of the Sandy Hook shootings.
The film also follows the family of Jimmy Greene, a Grammy-nominated jazz saxophonist, and Nelba Marquez-Greene, who had moved to Newtown from Canada. Since their daughter Ana Grace was killed, they have spoken out against gun violence and sought ways to honour her memory through positive action. Says Nelba who founded “The Ana Grace Project”: “I think about (the shooter) all the time. I think about his lack of connection with people, the community and I think what else could have been there for him?” Jimmy turned to music, recording an album, Beautiful Life, dedicated to Ana. As he puts it: “While I’m here on earth, I’m just committed to living every day to honour how my little girls lived — lovingly, joyfully, faithfully.”
The NRA to the contrary, making more guns available, is surely no answer to what these and so many other Americans have endured.