Collective Grief: Dir. Kim Snyder on Depoliticizing a Tragedy in Timely Doc ‘Newtown’

‘Newtown”

Indescribable pain in the wake of incomprehensible horror permeates a community since the morning of December 14, 2012 when the lives of 20 children and 6 adults were abruptly taken in a senseless act. For several years, filmmaker Kim Snyder documented the aftermath of the tragedy from the perspective of the three of the surviving parents and the town of Newtown as a whole as they grapple with the collective grief.

While there is no denying the film that emerged is heartbreaking and deeply affecting, its relevance is too imperative to ignore. Snyder refuses to make a blatant political statement, and instead centers on what is universal and undeniably relatable regardless of what one’s affiliations are.

In our conversation with director Kim Snyder, we discuss her long road to developing relationships with several parents that have bravely become activists, her decision not to touch on certain aspects of the story, and the importance of making this a human issue and not one about ideological division.

A special one-night screening event of the acclaimed documentary in over 500 cinemas nationwide will take place on November 2nd, followed by a live “Town Hall” panel discussion moderated by CNN Anchor Chris Cuomo.

Carlos Aguilar: I won’t say that I enjoyed the documentary, because its difficult to enjoy, but it’s such a powerful piece of filmmaking. The subject is of course compelling, but what compelled you to want to tell this story, knowing how difficult it could be?

Kim Snyder: I don’t think I even took in how difficult it would be. I didn’t know that I would spend three and a half years steeped in it. I chronicling a story of collective grief, one has to take time, one learns. I don’t think I knew what I was in for at the beginning. It’s not like I set out to spend the next three and a half years doing this. I happened to be in Newtown by happenstance, in a certain way. A former colleague of mine was connected up there, and asked me to explore a short form story, and maybe something longer. I went there reluctantly, but I started to form some relationships, and I became very much drawn to the story of collective trauma and grief, and what a entire community looks like in the wake of this, over a longer trajectory of time. It was something that my producing partner and I had not seen done. And so it began, and the relationships built, and lead to one another, and I saw the effects of trauma, and the desire to move out of a place of victimhood for a lot of the people who participated, and to transform that into another space that was more empowered. I took that journey with a lot of them, and it was very collaborative one.

CA: I know that you built these relationships over time, but how difficult was it get these people to tell you these very intimate and painful stories about their experiences, and losing their loved ones? I’m sure that was emotionally complex for both parties.

Kim Snyder: Yes, those relationships didn’t really begin until 8 months after I landed up there, 4 weeks after the tragedy. Those relationships built over years. It was a careful thing, with a lot of off-camera conversations, exploring what we would want to explore, cascading through it, and why, and we agreed, for those who participated, that there would be a greater good in being able to tell a story.

CA: Can you talk about the decision of not including the name of the shooter, or anything beyond a couple mentions?

Kim Snyder: It was an intuitive decision I came to early on. First and foremost, I wanted to be true to, knowing what the film was, to the idea that it was really about the point of view of the community. When I say, “the community,” there are 28,000 people, but the general sense I got was that this community almost didn’t have the bandwidth to be thinking about him every day. Much like the house going away, they had other fish to fry. They had difficulty just getting up in the morning, and putting one foot in front of the other, or in the case of the neighbor, it was about “How I’m going to support my neighbor, or deal with my own survivor guilt.” I think they didn’t have the bandwidth, and that was a different movie. It also seemed that, what I came to understand is that a lot of victim communities felt that there’s a lot of attention on the shooter. There’s a campaign called “No Notoriety,” that has been asking media to focus less on the shooters and naming them. I had already decided, like I said, intuitively, that those in town didn’t want to spend time on that. When I did tell it, it was through the perspective of Nicole, where it came up very naturally, because she had a very pointed proximity and relationship to thinking about that.

CA: Another dark aspect of the story that is not in the film, and I wanted to hear your take on it, is all the conspiracy theories that surround the Newtown events soon after they took place.

Kim Snyder: I honestly didn’t want to go there. I thought about it, and in a different kind of documentary, it would have been obvious, like, “Oh here’s another thing that they have to deal with,” and that would have been a legitimate choice, and probably interesting for a lot of people, but I thought, not dissimilarly to the other thing, that if I was being true to rendering the emotional journey of these families. I felt that this was something that they didn’t even want to give a moment of lip service to. In fact, I was aware that at one point these people came up to Newtown, demanding, in a public meeting, evidence or something like that. I was impressed by a collective decision in town to look through them, to not even acknowledge that they were sitting there. I thought that was so strong. It’s no different than Holocaust deniers, and all kinds of conspiracy theorists out there, who unfortunately spend all of their day thinking and doing that. They’re very vocal, they troll on the internet, and I don’t even like spending a lot of time thinking about it. I don’t think I would have that kind of reserve if I was one of those families, to not go after them, or lash out.

CA: After meeting them, and spending time with them, did it ever get easier? Like when you were in the editing room, building this film, did it ever get easier, or was it even more profoundly painful as you built the story?

Kim Snyder: We were filming all through the editing process, so when I say it was collaborative, I was never, like, “Ok that part of the film is done, now onto post-production.” It didn’t look like that. There was never a time when I wasn’t checking back in and because of that, it continued to be something that I was in touch with like at the birthdays of their children, or the anniversary, and even if I wasn’t technically in touch with the people up there, there was always this enormous sense of responsibility of what I had in my hands. People just opening up their hearts and their souls, and it felt so alive in the edit room, and we tried to treat it with that enormous sense of respect and preciousness.

CA: Given that you spent so much time working on the film, when did you as a filmmaker know that you had all the material that you needed, that you were ready? You said that you were editing throughout the whole process; how was that process of continuous shooting and adding things as you went along?

Kim Snyder: It’s funny, my father was an artist, and he always used to say that the hardest thing for an artist to know when a painting is done. I think that you don’t know, and you always wonder, but you can also over heat i— I like to cook, so I always make a lot of cooking analogies — so it becomes overworked, and you have to trust your instincts. With this story in particular, it could go on for years. It literally felt like a string that you’re pulling out of a sweater or a blanket, it keeps coming and keeps coming, and one story would lead to another and another, and “Oh my goodness, now there’s this.”

I think, to be really honest, certain deadlines that are scary come up, and you have a rough cut, and you say, “I don’t know if I can finish it in a couple of months, but I’m going to show it to some people,” and you show it to Sundance, and they say, “We like it, and we want it,” and then we got this crazy deadline. Many filmmakers have done that, and sometimes it’s a trap, because sometimes you’re not ready, and the deadline prematurely forces you to send something that isn’t quite baked.

In this case, we felt satisfied that it was baked. The hardest thing with the edit was how do you structure a story basically around grief, and be true to that experience, where there’s no climax and no easy ending. It wouldn’t be truthful to make it into a climactic, kind of Kübler-Ross stages of grief, where you go through this one, and then you go through this one, and then you’re on another side. We wanted to be truthful to the idea that there is no closure, but at the same time things move. The town is not in the same exact place it was three years ago either.

CA: It’s a very hard film to watch. It’s hard to go a few minutes without getting overwhelmed with emotion. Has that been the reaction everywhere you show the film?

Kim Snyder: Yes. When Mark, the father, travels with us, the first thing he would say to audiences was, “Thank you. Thank you for showing up, thank you for coming,” because we know this isn’t easy. However, we do get a lot of reactions that there is inspiration and hope in it, and I do think that for a lot of people, they walk away with a profound sense of purpose. The film gives them a sense of purpose over something that a lot of people in this country feel totally helpless, demoralized and angry about.

The film kind of reinvigorates the feeling that we do think that the conversation is changing, that we can’t afford inaction. There is a call to action, even though it’s not an overtly political film, and people have pointed that out, we do feel that. I think that, of course, we think that its’ worth it, and there are a lot of profound thoughts and feelings that are evoked. We think it’s a powerful experience to have with a community, formed when people are sitting in a theatre. It’s an experience, and we’re doing something unusual with the film after it’s recent release theatrically in New York, and in LA.

We’re going to have a one night screening in almost 500 theaters across America, on November 2nd, followed by a live town hall conversation that will be simulcast in those theaters. The idea is to depoliticize this, and put it in the humanitarian space that it needs to be in, and really recon with it as a public health crisis. That’s something that is for everybody who is concerned about this issue, which we all should be, because all of us are at risk of random gun violence. I say that would be one of the reasons to do it, and also to have their backs, because this could be any one of us.

There are lots of difficult pieces of art that we all go to and get something out of, so we hope people aren’t afraid of it. The heart of the film is not graphic. The whole movie is set up in the beginning, when that first responder says, “Nobody needs to know what we saw, but emotionally, the world needs to know.” Why would a state trooper say that? You wouldn’t expect a policeman to say that. I think it sets the tone, for someone like that to say that, and he’s really speaking to the nation when he says that. We need, as a society, to understand emotionally what this looks like each and every time a community goes through this, not for the purpose of just wringing our hands, but for the purpose of bearing witness to it, so that maybe we can make some changes, and prevent it from happening so frequently and repetitively.

CA: The parents became activists and subjects of a documentary through immense tragedy. That’s the role they now play and have bravely taken on, as you show in the film. Some of them are more vocal and attend meeting, but they are all incredibly courageous.

Kim Snyder: I see them as completely courageous and noble in their sacrifice. There’s a scene that we didn’t include in the film, where Mark Barden, we were shooting in Toledo, Ohio, says, “It’s too late for us, but maybe not for somebody else, some other parents.” David Wheeler says it so plainly, “It’s a natural human desire to want to protect the rest of the world from going through this, because maybe if more people had done that for us, perhaps this wouldn’t have happened.” They’ve all traveled with us. We have this group of collaborators, I really call them collaborators, both in the film and in the movement that we are growing around it.

CA: I’m sure this is a tough question, but this has been held up as the event that should have changed everything, it should have been the last drop of many, many drops in relation to gun violence. Why didn’t it change things? Why hasn’t tangible change happened in the three years since?

Kim Snyder: Like I said, I think that people are demoralized because of, as we see in the film, the defeat of that one bill on background checks. It came very soon after Sandy Hook, and there was the hope that it would pass. There are many analyses of why that failed to pass. But I do have hope that there will be things on the roster that will have movement in the next year or so. I think that we also see the conversation changing in other ways. Things are absolutely changing. Physicians wouldn’t talk about this for fear of losing their jobs, and now the AMA has come out more vocally and declared it a national public health crisis.

We see in the faith community, more and more faith leaders more vocal about this being a moral outrage, and something we need to address, this cultural violence. We see it happening with concerned teachers, we see it happen in our own screenings with youth who are dedicated to longer term changing to the way they see this. We also see it happening on the state level, where there are four ballot initiatives in a couple of weeks in four states, on background checks.

We know that how the marriage equality movement went was state by state, so I think that there are lots of things to look at that are not one federal piece of legislation. With this film, what we’re interested in at the moment, is a larger dialogue opening, putting it on the table, a culture shift, and a shift in consciousness around the issue.

CA: Thorough your experience, have you found filmmaking to be a toll for change or to at the very least spark a conversation around important issue?

Kim Snyder: I would say that I’m heartened that the film was not made as an in-your-face, text your senator, try to convince you of something and tell you what to do about it. This film is not that. With this film, there are so many things you can walk away feeling, or deciding to do. It’s simply a way to break through what I think is a dangerous desensitization and numbness in this country around this issue. I think that because it wasn’t an over-asking film, and we’re not a film talking about taking guns away, or taking away second amendment rights, that we do believe we can reach a larger swath of Americans, who have a whole grey area of attitudes about this. By bearing witness to this historic and horrific tragedy in the country that everybody grieved, through filmmaking, and being able to have such a, what I’ve observed to be, a visceral experience by audiences, we really do believe that it can be part of a tipping point that’s already in motion.