Following the December 14, 2012 massacre that claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, American filmmaker Kim A. Snyder (pictured, below) and producer Maria Cuomo Cole set out to chronicle a familiar thematic issue in her first film since 2009′s Welcome to Shelbyville: community.
In Newtown – which premiered Sunday (January 24) as part of Sundance’s U.S. Documentary competition – Synder set out to reveal the experience of an entire community as it tried to come to terms with the tragedy.
While Snyder acknowledges that it’s “nearly impossible” to discuss the tragedy at Newtown without delving into conversations about the current state of gun violence and gun reform, the main focus of the 83-minute film was to identify how a torn populace repairs its tattered social fabric.
As sorrow surged through the 28,000-person town, the director-producer looked to answer the existential questions behind the trauma placed upon the small and affluent region: Whose story is it to tell? Who claims it?
She began by canvassing and building trust within the town’s interfaith community before connecting with Father Bob Weiss, who led the burial ceremonies of eight of the 20 children the week immediately following the massacre.
After eight months of conversation and research, Snyder would cultivate relationships with Mark Barden, father to seven-year-old victim Daniel; David Wheeler, who lost his six-year-old son Benjamin; and Nicole Hockley, who lost her six-year-old son Dylan. The film, which provides exclusive archive footage through home videos captured months before the school assault, follows these three primary characters on a three-year journey of recovery that includes a memorial race and concert, the birth of another child and traveling the country on a campaign of advocacy.
Newtown, which received a $20,000 grant from the Film Maker Fund and was one of eight selected doc projects for the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Edit and Story Labs in June, served as the focal point of a Sundance panel moderated by Katie Couric on Monday (January 25) that explored the “policies, reforms and human experiences” around the frequency of gun violence in America. Stephanie Soechtig’s Under the Gun was also a subject of discussion on the panel.
PBS documentary strand ‘Independent Lens’ came on board Newtown three years ago and will broadcast the documentary this fall.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
What narratives were you looking to explore with Newtown?
As a filmmaker, my own absolute passion was that we had to look at [the issue of gun violence] in a way we haven’t seen, to break through the desensitization and really see what the tail end of this looks like every time this happens. There is a metaphor and a microcosm, so I did feel it was important to [present] this in a way that was experiential and emotional rather than factual, and in a way that would really be a gut punch for people to have some sense of what this community has lived with.
How were you able to to gain such intimate access to the victims’ families? Were they open to recounting their stories and letting you in?
I always started out by explaining how long-form documentaries have different things they can bring to bear than the news. [Families] had been so inundated with the news cycle and how that works, so I started by explaining this was something that would happen over years and that my real intent was to break through desensitization I felt the country was understandably experiencing because [gun violence] just happens so often.
A lot of people felt compelled to participate because they needed to bear witness and felt the trust. Many of them felt through doing this maybe we could do something together to prevent this from happening again some how.
How difficult was it for you to listen to these countless stories of loss?
Devastating. But I also felt that I was giving voice to something that was so important for us to hear. I felt a very strong sense that the film became about community – community within Newtown and the nation – in the sense that we have to have their backs.
In Newtown, it’s such an unusual thing because it was the worst mass shooting of school children in American history, so you have a tiny place with 26 deaths – 20 of them schoolchildren. There’s no one who’s not traumatized.
There is mention of ‘the shooter’ in your film of course, but his name has noticeably been omitted from the film. Was that a deliberate decision on your part?
It was very, very deliberate – I was like a control freak in the edit room over that particular issue. I felt strongly that I wanted to stand in solidarity with most of the survivors of Newtown itself and, from what I’ve been able to glean, survivor communities throughout the country to not say the shooter’s name. I understand why it’s important in journalism for that to happen, but I felt I had to stay true to that and not name him.
Newtown, as a whole, is an incredibly emotional story. Were there particular moments in the film that were difficult to capture?
When Nicole [Hockley] breaks down in the car finally and tells me her experience that day – I was not the same for many days. That was really hard because I felt a constant sense of protectiveness over their own limits [as the families] have had to navigate this themselves. I wanted to respect their own boundaries, and I was constantly making a conscious decision to try and fall short of the line of pushing it. If there was any pushing, it would be them with themselves.
Is it your hope that Newtown sparks the conversation on the current state of gun violence in the U.S.?
I think by looking at this universal story of grief and trauma through a collective community in the fallout of gun violence, that this could shift consciousness and take the larger issue out of a more polarized space and that we could start to open the dialogue and have a conversation about it in new ways.
Have you screened the film for the residents of Newtown?
I did feel compelled to share it with a few of the subjects who participated in the film last night [January 17] for the first time and it was one of the most unbelievably profound nights of my life – I’m still processing it. The trust that had been built, it felt like it had not been betrayed and that was incredibly important for me.
- Newtown screens during the Sundance Film Festival tonight (January 28) at 8:30 p.m. MST at the Marc Theatre in Park City, Utah, and again between January 29 and 30. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.