HBO takes on gun violence in “Requiem for the Dead”

Paycheck to Paycheck directors Nick Doob and Shari Cookson discuss their found-footage documentary for HBO, Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014, which follows eight stories of gun-related deaths using social media, news accounts, 911 calls and police investigations.
June 22, 2015

A powerful message resonates throughout HBO Documentary Films’ latest effort, Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014, which exposes eight of the stories behind the more than 8,000 American deaths resulting from gun-related incidents during a three-month period last year. And while it’s a message that carries added weight in the week of the June 17th church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, which left nine African American church-goers dead, its relevance, sadly, isn’t tied to just one senseless event.

“I hope that as the film goes on and you see one killing after another… that you gather this sense of outrage that this doesn’t need to happen,” said Nick Doob, who co-directed and co-produced the film with Shari Cookson and was interviewed by realscreen the day before the Charleston tragedy. “Almost every death in this film is preventable.”

Having won an Emmy for HBO’s The Memory Loss Tapes in 2009 – part of the network’s ‘The Alzheimer’s Project’ – discussions of the latest project began when HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins contacted Doob and Cookson with the proposal for a film on firearms.

While there have been scores of documentaries previously made on the perils of gun violence, this was fresh territory for the vérité directors, who ordinarily document contemporary subjects, and were now tasked with cataloging the past.

The dilemma, however, presented a unique opportunity that was born almost by accident, Cookson noted. Instead of creating a film that would focus on interviews to illustrate the stories, the team would utilize social media, news accounts and police investigations to connect the audience on a deeper level to the characters as they were – living their lives in the present.

The process began with the accumulation of digital materials that saw the directors comb through an estimated 400 headlines which led Cookson to scan through social media for more intimate information tied to the victims.

“What people choose to post about their lives, even if it seems like an ordinary day, can be really telling about who that person was,” she explained of the film’s lack of voice-over narration or interview footage. “In some ways, it’s the closest we’ve gotten to people in a strange kind of way.”

Without previous examples to go by, the two directors admit the most arduous processes of the year-long journey to create Requiem for the Dead was the careful selection of nearly 40 cues of music in order to drive the doc’s narrative, coupled with gathering enough broadcast-quality material to tell the story, and ensuring the entirety of the one-hour doc played out like a live social media film rather than a funeral slideshow.

“Our films are character-driven, and to find those moments where character is tested and where things make a turn in which you learn something about a person – that was the whole enterprise,” Doob explained. “That’s what we really had to go after, and that wasn’t always easy.”

Often the Paycheck to Paycheck directors would find themselves tracing their steps in an attempt to locate friends of the victim, or friends of friends. In one instance, the production crew burrowed through four years of social media activity to uncover comments made by the shooter in a murder-suicide that reflected his stages of depression, a friend’s advice to seek professional help and the shooter’s insistence that he could handle his issues on his own.

With Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014 set to premiere tonight (June 22) at 9 p.m. EST on the U.S. premium cable net, the two directors are hopeful their latest effort will challenge audiences to reflect deeply on the lingering and long-reaching effects that follow the act of pulling the trigger.

“There’s one story where one [11-year-old] boy shoots his best friend… It’s so painful, that call,” Doob says, referring to a panicked 911 call following the accident.

“You realize the awful possibility that it’s anywhere. Everything looks perfectly innocent and in a moment it all changes – it’s an awful feeling,” he added. “It takes away the security that you ordinarily have in life, [the sense] that life is that fragile.”

  • Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014 debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. EST/PST.
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