School Climate & Safety

Interview: Unclenching the Fist

January 01, 2004 6 min read
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Almost five years have passed since Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gunned down 13 people before turning their weapons on themselves in the most lethal school attack in American history. Memorials to the victims have been completed, experts have offered multiple theories for why the massacre happened, and this past fall, three separate films about Columbine-style shootings—Ben Coccio’s Zero Day, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, and Paul Ryan’s Home Room—began playing at art cinemas. Surprisingly, these films only serve to raise new questions with the similar, disturbing conclusion they all reach: There are no sensible reasons for an incident like Columbine.

Ben Coccio, director of the feature film Zero Day, advocates opening school doors to dissipate the self-absorption that leads to violence.
—Photograph by Donal Holway

It is perhaps most intriguing that Zero Day offers this take. While Elephant depicts a horrific day in a high school and Home Room explores how victims put their lives back together after a massacre, Zero Day is the fictionalized video diary of two suburban students plotting to attack their school the first day the temperature drops below zero. Twenty-eight-year-old filmmaker Ben Coccio, who attended high school in Niskayuna, New York, a suburban community he likens to Columbine’s Littleton, Colorado, has his characters, Cal and Andre, reveal a tantalizing array of possible motivations—harassment? Anti-Semitic feelings? A disappointing birthday gift? The movie, however, eventually forces us to conclude that they add up to nothing.

While Coccio thinks it’s important for Americans to accept the randomness of events like Columbine, he doesn’t believe we should despair. Teacher Magazine talked to the filmmaker about what we can learn by confronting the dark side of our culture.

Q: What was the impetus for your film?

A: [I was intrigued by the] confluence of this particular type of American tragedy, the shocking, media-engrossed random act of violence, coupled with another kind of American innovation—public school. Public school is a relatively new idea, and it’s created the society of the teenager. I think it’s very telling that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold decided to destroy their school, and it began and ended there. They intimated they wanted to take it farther, but I think they really knew in their heart of hearts that there was nothing farther. This was their whole world.

High school is a microcosm of society, but it’s not scaled down in every aspect. It’s scaled down in size and the number of people, but the emotions are the same. When you’re out in the world, you may have the most powerful emotions, but you have the whole world to dilute them. It’s like a breath of air in space. But in high school, your breath of air? Everybody’s got to smell it. There’s not as much of a societal pool to dilute those feelings, and they’re so potent.

Q: What were you like in high school?

A: I was in the punky alterna-clique. The thing that I think was great, as far as choosing a clique in high school is concerned, is that since there was only a small amount of us in each school, we had sort of a network of different schools in the area. So you would get out of your own little pool and see the world a little bit. Even though it was just a different Wendy’s in a different town, you still got a little more cross-pollination, and I think that was good.

I was picked on—not a lot—in the first couple years of high school, and of course that made me angry. But it never occurred to me that [violence] was even an option.

Q:Did co-writing and directing Zero Day give you any insight into what causes a kid to attempt something like Columbine?

A: One thing it gave me was this: Your kids, you never really know them. And maybe you never really know anyone. I really felt like researching this material, making this movie, and getting close to the subject was a lot like staring into the abyss.

Q: Why did you choose to shoot the film as a video diary compiled by the two boys?

A: The first-person approach affords you an interesting relationship with the audience. At times, the characters can be conspiratorial, at times they can be adversarial and accusatory, and at times they can be confessional. I used this narrative technique in order to get the audience unusually close to the characters. It’s never close enough.

Q: There are no clear reasons for why the two students in your film plan and carry out their attack. It’s frustrating to any viewer who hopes to leave the film with a better understanding of the underlying causes of such a tragedy.

A: It is frustrating. I wanted to transmit the enigmatic qualities of this in a dramatic way: You try to put your finger on it, and it’s just slipping out from under you all the time. It’s not an issue as much as it is an event, like a tornado.

Q: While the film may not suggest solutions, do you have any thoughts on how we might prevent similar tragedies in the future?

A: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went through anger management counseling, and they graduated from it. They got out of it because they were trying to get around it. We have free will, and if you want to trick people who are giving you a chance, you can. Should we change our open, trusting society because of that? No. You’ve got to say that we’re willing to accept sacrifices for this kind of a lifestyle. If you want the other kind of a lifestyle, yeah, you may have fewer random shootings, but maybe not.

Kids lack perspective—that’s the biggest thing. If I had teenage children right now, I’d want them to have a traditional education like I had, but above and beyond that, I would be doing everything I could to be giving them wider social and cultural perspectives. I would love it if schools had more programs that took kids out into the world and showed them how everything was. Remind these kids that there is a greater world outside, and that maybe if they are a loser today, they’ll be a winner tomorrow. And if they’re a winner today, they might be a loser tomorrow. Unfortunately, after Columbine, the reaction is a tighter, clenched fist.

Q: How have people reacted to the film?

A: I was recently on a talk show with [Columbine victim] Rachel Scott’s brother, Craig, and he said something which was very surprising to me. He said that I made the two kids look like rock stars. I can understand his agenda: He doesn’t want anyone giving them the notoriety they so desperately wanted. Clearly Andre and Cal are stand-ins for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, but I did fictionalize [the movie] for the purpose of not giving them that satisfaction. I cut out motivations so you can’t really sympathize with them. But at the same time, I tried to humanize them so you care.

He also feels that showing these kinds of things in a movie will influence more people to do them. That’s something I will never agree with. I think it’s very dangerous to say that art should not confront certain things because we’re afraid that if we get the idea out there, they will be repeated. Art has got to be fearless, it’s got to show everything.

Q: What effect do you hope your film will have?

A: I think that the more people make movies about Columbine, the more it will get into the cultural vernacular. A kid who wants to do something like this will be hanging out with his friend one day and be like, “I just really feel like pulling a Columbine.” And shocking as that sounds, it’s a lot better that he say that than do it. And that’s what will happen to some degree. Postal workers for a time freaked out that [shootings at post offices were] going to happen again. Now you see Jay Leno make a “going postal” joke at least once or twice a year. I really do feel the more we stare straight at it, the better prepared we are to defuse its power over us.

—Samantha Stainburn

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A version of this article appeared in the January 02, 2004 edition of Teacher as Interview: Unclenching the Fist

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