“Newtown,” a documentary about the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, premiered nation-wide on PBS’ Independent Lens earlier this month. The film, which closely follows families and individuals who were directly affected by the shooting, offers an intimate portrayal of grief and resilience.
The documentary takes a unique approach to holding a space for a grieving community — one that is processing, mending, and trying to find pathways forward.
The film does not force a narrative of hope or healing, but rather shows how a community learns to function in the aftermath of devastation. As stated on the film’s website: “‘Newtown’ documents a traumatized community fractured by grief and driven toward a sense of purpose. Joining the ranks of a growing club to which no one wants to belong, a cast of characters interconnect to weave an intimate story of community resilience.” The people of Newtown were shaken by mass gun violence, yet this is not the narrative that defines this community years after the tragedy. Instead, the film’s subjects unite in a resounding conversation about gun violence in this nation and the need to prevent another tragedy like this from happening in any town again.
ivoh spoke with Kim Snyder, the director and co-producer of “Newtown.” Synder, an activist and filmmaker, is a featured speaker at ivoh’s 2017 Media Summit.
Gloria Muñoz: What drove you to want to tell the story of Sandy Hook and revisit Newtown after the shooting?
Kim Snyder: I landed in Newtown several weeks after the tragedy at the behest of a nonprofit organization that had connections with Newtown’s interfaith community to help them develop some short form video content. One of the first subjects I met and interviewed was Father Bob Weiss, who had buried eight of the 20 children in one week. I was struck by this kind, gentle man of faith — a beloved fixture in this small bucolic place — utterly traumatized and thrust into a role beyond imagining. I began to take in the enormity of so many people affected in profound ways in the community as a whole and was drawn to a story of collective grief, trauma and resilience at first. I was incredibly moved by the town’s dignity and resolve to be remembered not only as a place of tragedy but as one of meaningful change and wanted to help give voice to that. My producing partner and I had not seen a work that really followed the long-term trajectory of aftermath for an entire community, and the emotional fallout left in the wake of such devastation. Newtown seemed to be a Rockwellian microcosm of an America threatened by the escalation of mass gun violence. As time went on, I became equally driven to create something that would bear witness to an unspeakable massacre and perhaps help break through desensitization to these issues.
Muñoz: What kept you going throughout the three and a half years of filming?
Snyder: Empathy toward all the survivors I met and their strength in feeling compelled to tell their stories.
Muñoz: It is a heartbreaking film to watch. Yet, the documentary holds a space for sadness and hurt without trying to push a narrative of healing or hope. Also, the film focuses on the families and not the shooter. Both of these aspects make “Newtown” unique. What made you decide to take these approaches as a director and storyteller?
Snyder: My producing partner and I had not seen a treatment of gun violence told through the lens of collective grief and long-term aftermath for an entire community. It was very important to us that it stay truthful to the experience of grieving we observed in that three years; a very little time in the trajectory of such profound trauma, and as such, we did not want to enforce a narrative of any type of “closure.” Yet, at the same time, we did and do feel hope from the material and the film in depicting the incredible strength and grace displayed by the survivors of Newtown. Rather than “healing” we were aiming to chronicle their resilience and what that looked like along with their trauma. We saw that in very specific ways like choosing to have a another child in the case of the Wheeler family.
The decision not to name or focus on the shooter was a very deliberate one for us. This film was crafted to be the point of view of the community and we felt we wanted to stand in solidarity with not giving much attention to him. It was my experience that people were so consumed with simply trying to navigate their own internal grief, and to navigate reconstructing the fabric of their own social circles, that there wasn’t much bandwidth for thinking about him. Sad as it is, most did not really know him, and so he was only relevant for this particular perspective if it came up for our characters as in the case of Nicole, who did live across the street but had only seen him.
Muñoz: Could you tell us about your storytelling process as a documentarian trying to bring together many different narratives and perspectives?
Snyder: Again, we had not really seen the story of mass gun violence and its aftermath from the perspective of an entire community — of the fallout and ripple effects for so many thousands — and wanted to depict that through a number of perspectives that might represent any town. In the beginning, I was not even sure it would contain the perspective of families who’d lost loved ones — the epicenter of all this collective grief. I was so hesitant to penetrate their privacies but the trust that we developed with the families who chose to participate was done over time with great care. It began with the relationship formed with Father Bob Weiss, the parish priest. I was profoundly struck early on with exposure to his trauma following the tragedy. I then began to develop a vision of having representative voices from law enforcement, the educator community, the doctors and EMTs, youth and neighbors. We developed the style of what we called the “testimonial” interviews from an early experiment that began the day of the first anniversary of the tragedy in consort with one of the churches where we offered to set up a camera in the basement for those who might want to bear witness following the service. With some of these we would leave the room with just the camera set up and monitor outside. This evolved over the next two years to collect a number of seminal interviews that portray these varying perspectives.
Muñoz: What advice can you offer media practitioners who visit communities after tragedy?
Snyder: My advice, which cannot practically always be applicable to most news producers — is to stay and take the time to build real relationships; this is why longform documentary has particular assets in this type of storytelling. I learned that flexibility was of utmost importance — to understand the need to give traumatized people and communities the leeway to direct their own process and regain a sense of control, as the inundation of media is often another layer of trauma in and of itself. Listening and not going in with a prescribed agenda and trying to make the process as collaborative as possible through giving voice in any number of private behind the scenes ways.
Muñoz: When it comes to gun violence prevention, “Newtown” has the capacity to create actionable change. Yet, as shown in the film (and in our country’s recent history), gun control can seem like an uphill battle. Since embarking on this project, have you seen the conversation around gun control shift and/or progress among groups that have watched the film?
Snyder: Absolutely. One of the things we tell audiences is that we believe “Newtown” will have proven to be a tipping point despite failed legislative action — but that movement building takes time. In the hundreds of screenings we’ve had since our Sundance premiere last year, we have experienced a White House screening with Valerie Jarrett in tears; screenings in Texas with NRA members saying this film will reach guys like them and wives saying this has changed their thinking on the issue of assault style weapons; screenings in Baltimore and Atlanta with urban victims of gun violence issuing condolences to Newtown families while provoking needed conversation about the loss of their own children in inner city neighborhoods; a recent screening to over 700 trauma surgeons pledging to organize voices calling to reframe the issue as a public health crisis … and countless screenings with teachers and police officers all affected and participating in dialogue about how we might effect change.
Muñoz: How has the documentary been received? And, now that it’s available online, what audiences do you hope “Newtown” will reach?
Snyder: We have been blessed to have received widespread mainstream coverage of the film with nearly unanimously positive critical response. Audiences are moved profoundly at each community screening with both shared grief and resolve to make change. We hope to continue to reach universal audiences and to specifically target stakeholder sub communities represented in the film: teachers, doctors. clergy, youth, victim communities, law enforcement. it is also essential we reach gun owners to help take this conversation out of the needless politically polarized space it now often lives in. Newtown is a traumatized community that represents countless communities across the nation, including those in urban centers, and the ripple effects of how many lives this touches with each act of gun violence — that reach is exponential.
We want people to move out of a place of denial because we can no longer afford to forget or become inured to over 30,000 gun deaths a year which pales in comparison to anywhere else on earth. We want people to have open and difficult conversations with those they think they might not be able to about this issue. And we want people to become more involved and give greater voice to the issue. Also heightened thinking as to how we interact with community, with our own grief and that of others. And through our impact campaign (newtownfilm.com) follow voices of others who illustrate that despite many peoples’ frustration and demoralization that nothing has changed since Newtown, that the conversation is changing, that grassroots efforts can make a difference, and that we can perhaps look back and say that Newtown was a tipping point.
To meet Kim Snyder and learn more about “Newtown,” join us at this year’s ivoh media summit. Attendees will hear her speak about her work, engage in a dialogue with her, and have the opportunity to watch the film during an evening screening.
Editor’s note: Interview was edited for length and clarity.