“The World Needs to Know”: Newtown

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Newtown
Directed by Kim A. Snyder
Opens October 7

This December will mark the fourth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, where twenty-seven people, including twenty children under the age of eight, were murdered by a deranged young man with pathetically easy access to firearms. Since 2012 America has moved on, toward more shootings, higher body counts, deadlier weapons, and few practical social, economic, or legal measures to prevent the devastation. What can film, especially just one film, do about it? In Newtown, documentary director Kim A. Snyder chooses to focus on the human dimension of Sandy Hook, on the lives of those directly affected by the shooting. The film contains little dramatic or graphic footage—as Connecticut State Trooper Bill Cario rightly states at the outset, “I don’t think that any of us that were in there feels that anybody needs to know specifically what we saw. Emotionally I think the world needs to know to understand it”—and only briefly touches upon issues regarding gun control.

Focusing on the experiences of the survivors and relatives of those killed at Sandy Hook, with only occasional glimpses at the larger social context in which the catastrophe occurred, may seem like an obvious choice, perhaps even an easy choice. Newtown is not Bowling for Columbine, and does not attempt anything like Michael Moore’s wide-scale investigation of the causes of the Columbine shooting and the United States’ uniquely destructive relationship with guns. (The film’s website, however, encourages visitors to join a national campaign against gun violence.) But Snyder’s approach nonetheless possesses merit. Sandy Hook and other mass shootings represent a cultural as much as a political problem, and at the moment our culture—if I dare write in such sweeping, monolithic terms—is numbed, defeatist, and ideologically doctrinaire when it comes to gun violence. By showing who was affected by Sandy Hook and how, Newtown concretizes what often becomes an abstraction; due to Snyder’s concentrated attention, the sadness, anger, and pain on display makes her film nearly unbearable and yet absolutely necessary to watch.

More than anything else, Newtown is a collective portrait of grief and resilience. Interviews and entrenched documentation show families—especially the Bardens and the Wheelers, both of whose sons were killed at Sandy Hook—living their day-to-day lives in the wake of the inconceivable. Snyder gets her subjects to open up about the horror of December 14, 2012: Melissa Malin, the mother of a first-grader who survived the attack, describes the gathered parents’ reaction to the confirmed report of the dead children in brutally heartbreaking language (“When I tell you the room erupted… it will forever, forever be in my mind.”) More significantly, Snyder follows the families as they continue to be haunted and also strengthened by their ordeal. We see parents reminiscing while watching home movie footage of their dead children; marching on Washington and meeting with the President as part of a failed campaign to pass legislation for assault weapon background checks; creating community events and bonds to support one another through the darkest periods of mourning. Through its harrowing testimonies Newtown explores the difficulty for surviving relatives to honor and remember their slain family members without succumbing to the vertigo that comes with searching the past. Possibly the most intense sections of this intense, intense film show the parents moving toward, and sometimes retreating from, an understanding of their children’s final moments. Snyder’s film isn’t explicitly political but rather explicitly ethical: it allows those who were irrevocably changed by Sandy Hook to tell their story so that we may better hear the cries of the innocent and take them to heart.

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