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Documentary ‘Newtown’ examines a town’s lasting trauma

March 18, 2017 at 5:15 PM EDT
The documentary "Newtown" explores the aftermath of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults. The documentary, which weaves together the experiences of those affected by the tragedy, will air April 3 on the PBS program Independent Lens. NewsHour Weekend's Saskia de Melker reports.

By Saskia de Melker and Laura Fong

SASKIA DE MELKER: The documentary “Newtown” shows how the tragedy has shaped not only the victims but the whole town. Filmmaker Kim Snyder spent three years making the film.

You speak with a number of people from the community in the film: the next door neighbor at Sandy Hook Elementary, a priest in the community. Why did you take this approach of looking at the entire community?

KIM SNYDER: We felt it was really important that, that hadn’t really been done, to look at the ripple effects and the devastating trauma to an entire town, to an entire community; the effects on not just family members who lose so much, but on neighbors and on doctors and on priests and our law enforcement and our teachers. And from there evolved a sort of vision to show through multiple lenses what redefining victim as an entire community, which is something we don’t always see.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Right after the incident, Sandy Hook Elementary neighbor Gene Rosen encountered a group of evacuated school kids on his front lawn.

GENE ROSEN, SCHOOL NEIGHBOR Film Clip “Newtown”: They looked horrible. They were out of breath. I could tell they had been crying, but they were quiet. They were quiet in their abject fear and terror.

KIM SNYDER: Newtown is 28,000 people, and this was a sampling of certain voices that we got to organically, where one person would introduce us to another in a very private way. But there wasn’t anyone that I met who wasn’t completely experiencing varying levels of trauma, even years out.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Mark Barden talks about losing his son, Daniel.

MARK BARDEN, PARENT Film Clip “Newtown”: You can only try to imagine how unbelievably difficult and challenging that is to try to interpret what your seven-year-old experienced as he was being murdered

SASKIA DE MELKER: Melissa Malin is Mark Barden’s next door neighbor. Her son, Kyle, was in the classroom down the hall from Daniel and escaped unharmed.

MELISSA MALIN, PARENT Film Clip “Newtown”: This guy walked into the school, and he went left. Why did he go left? Kyle was on the right. The second door on the right. Why did he go this way, and not that way? I don’t know. It’s not fair. None of this is fair.”

SASKIA DE MELKER: You really capture neighbors who are trying to reconcile the random chaos of this event.

KIM SNYDER: The rebuilding of that community is sort of reconciling these relationships of people just feeling so terrible for their friends or neighbors who did lose children. But at the same token, there are people, there were 300-some children in the school that day, and many of them saw things and all of them heard things that I’m sure they will never forget. And so those families go through very difficult journeys right now with their surviving children. So there’s also, I think, part of the film was to open up the need to have empathy for all kinds of different people in the town.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Has this tragedy defined this community?

KIM SNYDER: That’s exactly what they would say they don’t want to be defined by, the tragedy. But having said that, it’s a town that will be forever changed. It’s sort of in the DNA, I think, of the history of the town now for generations to come.

SGT BILL CARIO, CONNECTICUT STATE TROOPER, Film Clip “Newtown”: I don’t think that any of us that were in there feel that anybody needs to know specifically what we saw. Emotionally the world needs to know to understand.

KIM SNYDER: We want people to bear witness to this and to have the backs of not only the people in Newtown who went through this, but this sort of epidemic of all these people that I think we’re becoming at large a traumatized society from all of these gun deaths, and to decide for themselves what do we want to do about this.

SASKIA DE MELKER: The film shows the efforts of some Newtown families, as part of the group called Sandy Hook Promise, to push for stricter background checks for gun buyers and for banning semi-automatic rifles and high capacity magazines, like those used on their children. As a result, Connecticut changed its gun laws but, along with President Obama, the families failed to persuade Congress to act on an expanded background check bill.

KIM SNYDER: Some of them were trying to make change in terms of social action. Others were having all kinds of personal transformations and really, I think the film is as much about resilience, human resilience and collective grief as it is about the issues that underlie gun violence. We’ve screened in very politically diverse parts of the country. We’ve had NRA members come; just several days ago had a conversation with a few who have seen the film and said this is a really important film, and we all need to be able to talk about this in a more civil way. So that’s been incredibly inspiring.

SASKIA DE MELKER: On the film’s website, Snyder points viewers to Sandy Hook Promise and the pro-gun control Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety.

The pro-gun rights National Rifle Association declined to comment on the film or Sandy Hook Promise. But the pro-gun industry National Shooting Sports Foundation, which has long been headquartered in Newtown, Connecticut, told NewsHour Weekend: “We have met with representatives of this organization, and we have a respectful relationship.” While opposing a ban on semi-automatic rifle guns or high capacity magazines,“The National Shooting Sports Foundation has long worked to help keep firearms out of the hands of individuals who should not have access to them.” That’s included pushing states to send complete criminal or mental health records for everyone banned from banning guns to the federal background check system.

SASKIA DE MELKER: You don’t ever say the shooter’s name in the film. Why?

KIM SNYDER: My sense of it was that those people who perpetrate these kinds of crimes are given a lot of notoriety. And so we really wanted to take the lead of a lot of victim communities not to give as much notoriety to the shooters, but to really focus more on the people whose lives were taken, on the loss and on the effect on the community.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Did you ever consider talking to anyone from the shooter’s family as a member of the community?

KIM SNYDER: I did to be honest.The shooter’s father had given an interview that got out there in print. But he had moved away from Newtown. He really wasn’t currently a member of the community.

SASKIA DE MELKER: In the film, Nicole Hockley talks about her six-year-old son, Dylan, who died at Sandy Hook Elementary.

NICOLE HOCKLEY, PARENT, film clip “Newtown”: I have these memories. I have pictures. I have hair and teeth. And yet you go through these crazy motions of ‘Am I just dreaming all of this?’ I still keep expecting him to be there, but have I just gone insane? Is this real?

SASKIA DE MELKER: Several of the parents express they don’t really want closure because that means that their child is really gone. How did you decide when to stop filming or how to end this film when there’s not really an end for this community?

KIM SNYDER: It was really important for us to stay honest to the fact that there is no closure, and you don’t get over this. It does go on. We felt we had gotten a certain amount of perspectives over the three years, and that we had that story. And there was enough shifts, there were enough small baby step kinds of shifts in some of the people that we were involved with. So much was really about chronicling the beginnings of, or the makings of resilience more than healing.