Filmmaker Kim Snyder is no stranger to having to patiently and empathetically ingratiate herself with a community. Her film Welcome to Shelbyville, which was nationally broadcast on Independent Lens, spent time in a small Tennessee town where its residents — whites and African Americans, Latinos and Somalis — grappled with their beliefs, their histories and their evolving ways of life. Her new film, Newtown [which premieres on PBS Monday night, April 3 at 10pm; check local listings], required the director take several years off and on getting to know the families, citizens, paramedics, teachers and friends who were all affected — devastated — after a horrific mass shooting there in 2012 which took the lives of 20 elementary school children and six educators.
“Snyder uses her camera as a friendly ear and as an eye to bear witness,” wrote Lanre Bakre in the Guardian. “It’s a shocking and compelling piece of work.” The “vivid” film “refutes hopelessness, making its case less with words than with faces it’s impossible to forget,” adds Stephanie Zacharek in TIME.
Kim Snyder talked to us about what it was like to make a film that covers what seems like an impossibly painful subject with a fresh, sympathetic approach.
This is such a powerful and important story to cover, but also a very difficult one to tell, and tell the right way. What initially compelled you to take on that challenge?
I landed in Newtown several weeks after the tragedy at the behest of a non-profit 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 twenty 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.
Could you talk a bit more about your approach with the families in Newtown?
I didn’t meet the three families who participated in the film until maybe eight months in. I felt so cognizant of their privacy, how I might feel. In that first year, one just felt a pervasive sense of shock and trauma in town. It took maybe nine months of following stories, ingratiating myself into the lives of the people who ended up being in the movie and many deep, off-camera conversations. They ranged from existential to more personal themes and explored why this story might be important to tell in a way the news couldn’t. How a partnership with a public television project might lend itself more to a collaborative process, and in what ways the making of the film might be a positive force for them personally and toward affecting change. We all were in agreement that the starting point would be deeply intimate rather than agenda-driven.
My team and I would always try to stay three feet away from a line where it would impose or add stress to their ongoing grief. The trauma was so palpable. The landmines, the sensitivities were so pervasive. I learned a lot about trauma and how it looks — a sense of complete loss of control over one’s life and destiny — and so it was important to always offer many choices and options of what we might or might not explore on any given day and I generally let my subjects lead. They never felt like film “subjects,” but more like intimate evolving relationships that replicated other trust and relationship building in personal life – with boundaries delicate. I tried to intuit when to allow space but also to be open and transparent about my own thoughts and feelings so as not to make them feel “other.”
Quite simply, we became real friends over time and trust was paramount.
How long did you live off and on there?
We were there many, many months along the way for days at a time over the course of three and a half years between Newtown, sometimes Westchester and NYC.
How did you get the word out to the community that you were going to make a film, and were people wary of you at first?
The process was very private and very organic. We never went up with lists of victims or cold-called anyone. It was a process of one trusted person leading to another who might feel compelled to tell their story. If I had the sense after an initial conversation on the phone that the person was wary or not in a place where this might be a positive thing, I would sometimes suggest not doing so, because the last thing we wanted was to re-traumatize anyone.
We did let town leadership know what we were doing along the way, and where appropriate, sought advice and extended messages to families of loss about the film should they want to be in touch. The interfaith community, which was a beginning entree for us, was also very supportive and involved. In fact, we have produced supplementary short pieces with some of this early material.
It’s on the surface about a very different array of topics, but your previous film Welcome to Shelbyville also required you to become a part of a community in order to make such a personal portrait of it. Can you talk about your experiences making Shelbyville and how that informed how you approached Newtown? What did you learn from that time?
Taking on community as character was not something new, and so it definitely informed my approach to Newtown. That film explored another large and looming issue of America at a crossroads (perhaps now even more timely than when I made it!): that of immigrant integration in Smalltown, USA. There too, it was important to get a number of lenses into the fabric of one small town and to build trust with that community over time. Part of that is listening and conveying an authentic sense of empathy for different experiences.
I learned that people, especially in smaller towns, take great pride in their sense of community, and I wanted to honor that sense of community and offer a positive vision for the possibilities for civil discourse about issues that so often are deeply politically polarizing in the nation as a whole. It also offered a tool for dialogue opening and modeling for grassroots activism. Although that was not the initial primary goal for Newtown, I believe it achieves this in the end.
Is there anything particularly powerful or interesting that has come out of screenings that you’ve attended? Thinking especially of screenings in Connecticut, and in Orlando (scene of the tragic Pulse nightclub shooting)…
So many in the hundreds of screenings we’ve had since our Sundance premiere last year. A few that come to mind: our Sundance premiere with all 3 participating families by our sides, our Connecticut debut which tragically took place June 12th, the very day of the Orlando Pulse shooting with many Newtown and CT residents showing up to stand in solidarity with Orlando community despite their own trauma; our 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
What else do you hope people take away from Newtown after they see it?
In a word, empathy. 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. To understand we are all together in this public health crisis that threatens each and every one of us. 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 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 the film was a tipping point.
— Independent Lens|PBS (@IndependentLens) March 31, 2017
How do you think this film can be used in other communities that have experienced a mass tragedy, to help them heal?
Through our ongoing experience in Newtown and past screening in Orlando, we have learned that traumatized communities are often challenged with a dual desire to move on and “normalize” while at the same time sometimes feeling lost and alone in their ongoing trauma. Community recognition of this between community members — seeing and acknowledging others in their pain seems sometimes helpful. We have also seen screenings with interfaith involvement along with trauma informed care gather around the film, which can sometimes act as a catalyst in moving people out of silos that develop. It also gives the community a sense of validation vis a vis the rest of the country in better understanding the long term affects of their trauma, and for some a tool to transform that pain into meaningful change.
What film projects are you working on next, if you can talk about them?
There is still much to be done to harness the power of Newtown and we are still very much compelled to ensure that this is maximized. We are doing this through an impact campaign with town hall-like screenings across the country, through using the film to help aggregate voices of those in film — teachers, doctors, youth, clergy, law enforcement, town leadership — led by our Newtown friends and participants. To that end, we have begun a series of webisodes #WeAreAllNewtown, partnered with Independent Lens, the first of which we premiered on People Magazine this past week. I am also developing a new doc project based in Florida as well as exploring transition into some narrative work.
What are some other films/documentaries that influenced you as a filmmaker, and maybe were in your mind as you worked on Newtown?
I was very much drawn toward narrative material in the making of Newtown; I re-watched Ordinary People, The Sweet Hereafter, Elephant. In terms of docs, I was inspired, not surprisingly, by Shoah, and by other films such as Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, and Errol Morris’s Fog of War, so deeply ensconced in testimonial style.