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AUSTIN,TEXAS—It’s a surreal experience to watch a movie about a mass shooting less than one mile from the scene of what many consider to be the first American mass shooting, on the University of Texas’ campus in 1966. It’s surreal to hear strangers weep and gasp within the first 20 minutes of a movie. It’s surreal to lock yourself into this visceral story about the brutal murder of 26 people, the majority of them children, and surreal to walk away with even less of an understanding as to why it happened in the first place.
The new documentary Newtown, which screened to a packed house at the Paramount Theatre during South by Southwest on Sunday afternoon, is not about Adam Lanza or his motivations. Nor is it a statistics-heavy look at American gun violence as a whole. Instead, the movie concerns everything that came after December 14, 2012, the day Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six educators, and created a crime scene so awful that the relatively small number of people who saw it do not want the public to know the details.
We do not see the blood but we hear the 911 calls and the police dispatch tapes. We see dash-cam footage and aerial shots from hovering helicopters. It’s a familiar scene, one that looks like Columbine—cop cars racing toward a school, officers with automatic weapons drawn, looming satellite vans, weeping parents, terrified kids. “Please, Jesus. Please, Jesus. Please Jesus.”Darkness and deadness in the eyes of first-hand witnesses as they soberly recall the day’s events. “I don’t think there’s an hour, or couple hours, where I don’t think about it,” Rick Thorne, a Sandy Hook custodian tells us. But the day, itself, which they all call “12/14” now, takes up barely 10 percent of the film. The remaining 90 percent is about Newtown from 12/15 through present day. All of the families’ stories are singular and yet they all blend together. It’s not about an event, it’s about how one event literally changed the course of everyone’s life.
Newtown, in all of its unfathomable ugliness, was supposed to be the last straw, the one that changed everything. The rallying cry. If not re-upping the full assault weapons ban, then at least expanding criminal background checks. Some sort of progress. Anything. But none of that happened. Instead, we got Elliot Rodger and Charleston and Planned Parenthood. This December will mark four years since the shooting, and we just finished a period with 23 mass shootings in 20 days. The violence continues, unabated.
Then there are the practical matters. How do you bring yourself to empty your dead child’s chest of drawers? What do you say at a funeral mass for 6-and-7 year olds? Are friends and neighbors supposed to stop by or leave you alone? How do you put people at ease with your overwhelming grief? How do young surviving siblings live anything close to a normal life? How do you find closure when a real part of you doesn’t even want closure? Some parents still have their lost children’s heights marked in pencil on the doorways of their homes. One father saved his son’s bicycle helmet because it still contains a few strands of his long, blonde hair. He hides it in the garage; he plans to keep it forever. Another expresses that, given his son’s young age, he knew almost everything he had ever experienced in his short life. But he didn’t know what it felt like, or what was going through his son’s head, during the final hours, those minutes before he was pumped full of bullets for no reason other than being present for school that day. It is hard to listen to a father reminisce about the good times he had with his deceased boy. It is another thing to listen to a father tell you he wants to know exactly how it felt for his son to be murdered.
The film succeeds in its juxtaposition of Newtown as a then-and-now place. New-Town. Like Amir Bar-Lev’s Penn State documentary Happy Valley, it’s a story about a community, a “that could never happen here” town that meets its reckoning and never goes back to the way things were. In some shots, the lawns look particularly green and the suburban homes look particularly big and safe, while the archival footage of the day’s events is grainy and washed out. There is barely a score or soundtrack; the background silence is intentionally heavy. The takes are long and the camera focuses on faces, on eyes, on dragging a scene a few extra beats just to let a thought or statement hang in the air. It is not the type of film that beckons repeat viewings, but everyone should see it at least once.
Two hours after the film let out, I went to a markedly different event on the other side of town (an outdoor barbecue). I stood in line for a burger behind a white-haired woman in a bulletproof vest over her orange blouse. She had affixed strips of electrical tape to the back that read “BULLETPROOF IS THE NEW BLACK.” Her name is Mary Kuse and she’s a UT alum; she graduated in ’86, some 43 years after her father. Her mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins are all Longhorns, too. Turns out, she had just come from the screening as well. The vest was a Christmas present; she’s outfitted it with the tape as a protest against Texas’ infamous open-carry laws.
“I’m pretty much just sick of all the bullshit,” Kuse told me. “I don’t know how else to explain it. I haven’t lost anybody personally to gun violence, in my immediate family or immediate friends. But it’s the bigger picture of how rage and anger can so quickly lead to death if you have a gun in your possession, or if you’re so lackadaisical and allow your four-year-old to access a loaded gun in your truck, it’s just ridiculous. It’s the over-arching fear of everything in this world. And to add guns to the mix? Is just horrifying to me.”
The vest is hot, and it weighs quite a bit, she said.
“I have two daughters who are college-age. I have one who goes to Texas State and I have one that’s going to be attending UT-Dallas in the fall, when campus-carry starts,” Kuse said.
“So I have concerns for their safety, their well being, their peace of mind, knowing that their fellow students could have guns on them when they’re trying to study and just get by in the world.”