A Documentary Grows With Each Mass Shooting

A new film about gun violence has a simple concept and a brief running time, but its makers intend it to be nothing less than a living document of the cycle of violence.
Called “Speaking Is Difficult,” the movie pairs recent footage of sites where mass shootings occurred — some locations look unremarkable; others clearly reflect the gruesome events — with audio of the 911 calls made at the time.

The film, which was released this week online, begins with the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings in December and continues back in time through 24 other incidents in the United States to the January 2011 attack in Tucson, where the former Representative Gabrielle Giffords was among the 13 injured. Six others were killed. Technically, the movie ends with, and gets its title from, a plea Ms. Giffords made to the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing on gun violence after her injuries made talking a physical challenge.

But the film is actually a continual work in progress. Just under 15 minutes long now, the director, the veteran documentarian A J Schnack (“Kurt Cobain About a Son,” “Convention”), plans to add new footage and 911 audio after future mass shootings. According to an examination by The New York Times in December, a mass shooting, defined as an attack that leaves four or more people wounded or dead, occurred, on average, every day in 2015 in the United States.

The goal is to “at least remind people that this is not normal,” Mr. Schnack said in a phone interview. “And it’s not enough just to be horrified or concerned about it. You have to actually engage.”

He added: “The title ‘Speaking Is Difficult’ is kind of a double meaning. It references the speech at the end of the film, but it also is about the fact that our ability to have a national conversation has been not only difficult, but almost impossible.”

The premise first took shape after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in October. “One thing I noticed was the response on social media and how it was an echo of the response to every other recent mass shooting event,” Mr. Schnack said. “It felt like we were in a pattern of horror, then outrage, then finger-pointing, then ultimately resigning ourselves to this is the way things are. And we went dormant to thinking about these things until it came around again. That cycle of response made me think of doing a film where the events themselves become this nonstop echo of each other.”

The short was released as part of Field of Vision, an online series of documentary shorts that approach news stories from unusual angles. (Mr. Schnack helped create the series along with Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cook.) The film had its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, alongside a number of movies that also focused on gun violence. They included a drama inspired by the Aurora, Colo., movie theater killings, a documentary about the impact of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting deaths and another documentary looking at lawmakers’ inability to halt the cycle of violence.

The director and academic Robert Greene, who in his role as the University of Missouri filmmaker in chief teaches alternative paths to storytelling, said Mr. Schnack’s approach “takes a news subject that we’ve become strangely ambivalent about and makes it urgent in a new way.” (Mr. Greene supervised students making another Field of Vision film, “Concerned Student 1950,” about protests at the University of Missouri.)

“Sometimes I tell my students, the best ideas that other people have done some version of, and you just find the perfect way to execute it,” he said. “I feel like this is that. The disassociated sound and landscape idea goes back, but this is an incredibly effective use of it.”

“Speaking Is Difficult” has an intentionally repetitive nature that was partly inspired, strange as it may seem, by the satirical news site The Onion, which reposts an article with the same headline for every mass shooting: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The film also has a distinctive visual style. Each segment includes static shots of the location along with a title card listing the city, the date, the number of people killed and the number injured, then a cut to black between each event.

The tone was set when Mr. Schnack first sent the cinematographer Nathan Truesdell, to Seal Beach, Calif., to film the site of a shooting in a nail salon in 2011.

“When we saw the footage, it was striking that not only was the hair salon still open, but it was operating under the same name, and people were going in and out,” Mr. Schnack said. It becomes this place where there’s no memory of what had happened there.”

The filmmakers found that to be the case for a number of the locations they went back to. But footage from more recent shootings, like the November attack at a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs, still shows police tape at the scene.

Mr. Schnack filmed one of the locations himself and assembled a team of 17 videographers to get footage of other sites.

His decision to match landscape shots with audio from a different time is reminiscent of his film “Kurt Cobain About a Son,” which paired visuals of Seattle locations with audio from an interview the musician did with the journalist Michael Azerrad. The juxtaposition gives new meaning to both the imagery and the audio.

While potentially a daunting task, Mr. Schnack is committed to adding to his film with new shootings.

“We’ve done 25, and I would like to not do more,” he said. “But for us, it’s a way to not make it easy on ourselves either. Because we will know that anytime something like this happens, there will be work for us to do.”


Matt O'Neil
Published Date: 
Friday, April 22, 2016