The American Film Institute could not have possibly foretold the latest mass shooting in the country and the political aftermath in the nation’s capital when it scheduled the documentary “Newtown” for its AFI DOCS film festival this week.
“Newtown” is an unavoidably sad but nonetheless gripping film about the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the Connecticut town of the film’s title.
Twenty young students and six adult staff members were killed by the mentally disturbed 20-year-old who had killed his mother before heading to the school. (The film declines to name the assailant based on the movement to deny notoriety to such killers. I’ll go along with that.)
“Newtown,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is scheduled for theatrical release in September, was introduced at the AFI DOCS festival on June 23 by two members of Congress who had participated in recent outbreaks of unusual protest or dissent in the House of Representatives that followed this month’s mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
One was Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who participated in the takeover of the House floor by members seeking a vote on a proposal that people on the No Fly list not be able to purchase weapons. The other was Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., who walked out of the House rather than participate in the moment of silence conducted after the Orlando killings. He said that offering such a moment of silence was not enough anymore.
But the festival is about the films. “Newtown” has a few moments devoted to the political aftermath of the Sandy Hook killings, such as the passage of tough gun restrictions by the state of Connecticut and the bitter disappointment of President Barack Obama and the Newtown parents that Congress would not adopt anti-gun measures after the tragedy.
But the film by director/producer Kim A. Snyder and producer Maria Cuomo Cole is not primarily political. And it is also not chiefly about the tick-tock of what happened at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, 2012, though there is enough context about the facts and some harrowing dashcam video of police cars arriving on the scene.
“Newtown” is primarily about the painful aftermath for families that lost a child or sibling and a community where life must go on. Three or four families touched by the tragedy offer incredibly poignant perspectives on how they cope with the loss of a child, or in the case of one Sandy Hook teacher, having been inside the school.
Nicole Hockley, the mother of 6-year-old Dylan Hockley, who was killed in the tragedy, shows the room where she keeps the boxes of well-meaning items sent by strangers from around the world, such as sketches of Dylan. Nicole can’t handle looking at all the items. (And some of the sketches look a little off, which must be only further disconcerting to parents who have lost a child.)
Mark Barden, the father of 7-year-old Daniel Barden, who was killed at Sandy Hook, protests that he’s a professional musician, not an anti-gun activist, as events propel him into being more of an activist.
David Wheeler, the father of 6-year-old victim Benjamin Wheeler, talks about how one day he suddenly felt the need to enter Sandy Hook school, soon before it was to be demolished, to get more of a feel of where his son died. The step seems to have been at least somewhat cathartic.
Some of the parents—Barden and Hockley—appeared at a panel discussion after Thursday’s screening at the Newseum in Washington. Barden noted that many of the child victims would be moving on to intermediate school next fall. He says he steered clear of the community debate to tear down Sandy Hook Elementary and build a new elementary school, which is scheduled to open this fall.
Snyder, the director, said she could have gone in many directions with the “Newtown” documentary, but she opted for “putting a human face on gun violence” and for stressing a message of “community.”
The director ended on a political note. Every member of Congress should have to watch the film, she said, to applause from the audience.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.