‘Us Kids,’ ‘Parkland Rising,’ ‘Voices of Parkland’ and ‘After Parkland’ explore the tragic shooting and follow survivors through their progress from trauma to activism.
That day and its aftermath have delivered a recent crush of content: Four feature-length documentaries are now in the unique position of competing for eyeballs and attention amid a nationwide gun-violence epidemic. The list is actually longer if you count previously released projects like HBO’s short film Song of Parkland; Charlie Minn’s Parkland: Inside Building 12; and documentary 39 Days from CBS News.
Documentarian Kim A. Snyder, the filmmaker behind Newtown, about the 2012 mass shooting that claimed 28 lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the titular Connecticut town, recently debuted her film Us Kids at the Sundance Film Festival. The Endeavor Content film traces the students turned activists in the months following the shooting as they grapple with trauma, activism and fame. Filmmaker and producer Cheryl Horner McDonough directed Parkland Rising, which was executive produced by Katie Couric and will.i.am. The latter film, which premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival, where it won an audience award, spotlights the aftermath of the shooting and those affected as they’ve become leaders in the national movement for gun reform.
March for Our Lives activists David Hogg, Jaclyn Corin, Emma Gonzalez and fathers Fred Guttenberg and Manuel Oliver, among others, participated in McDonough’s film, which is set to screen privately in New York this week as well as during the Human Rights Film Series at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh on Feb. 13. “If you haven’t seen [these films], it’s easy to think we are all telling the same story but we’re not at all. They are very different films where we are focusing on different aspects of the story and different people with varying tones. My film’s focus was always about the activism and the actions of the students, the surviving students and the parents of some of the victims,” McDonough tells THR. “Here we are two years later, and we’re still talking about it to keep those voices amplified.”
A third film, Voices of Parkland, is from celebrity photographer-turned-filmmaker Jeff Vespa, who teamed with producer Judd Apatow to chronicle individual stories in “portrait journalism-style” interviews with 35 students and parents directly affected. That film — set for a Feb. 12 premiere at Theatre at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to benefit Brady United Against Gun Violence — features “no news coverage, no photos, no following people around, no b-roll, no music and I don’t even have any titles to identify the speakers. It is raw and direct with just 35 individuals filmed on a black background speaking to the camera. One light and one camera,” Vespa tells THR of his project, which originally began as an anti-gun PSA campaign featuring personal, and highly emotional, stories.
Filming took a toll on him as well. “I was a real mess. I’m a dad and my wife was pregnant at the time, so here I was flying back and forth from L.A. to Florida, leaving my pregnant wife to listen to stories about children being killed. I came home and was very depressed for a long time; it took a while to get over that.” (He’s planning a nationwide tour of the film in partnership with NowThis.)
Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman embedded with students including Hogg, Brooke Harrison and Sam Zeif for their film After Parkland, which will screen in more than 100 theaters on Feb. 12 as part of a nationwide Day of Conversation to honor the two-year anniversary. The ABC Documentaries project was an official selection of the Tribeca Film Festival, AFI Docs and Hot Docs. Taguchi tells THR that very early on, they noticed that there was “a real refusal on the part of the students and families to let their stories fade, and an insistence to continue retelling their experiences” so no other community would have to go through the same tragedy. “In that spirit, we have always said, the more coverage the better — the lives lost and the ripple effects from an act of violence can never be forgotten, and it may take multiple films, hitting on different aspects of the Parkland experience, to do that. We welcome them all and hope that together they encourage a powerful dialogue,” adds Lefferman.
As for the competition, Vespa tells THR that there is none. “As a filmmaker, if you find out that there are competing films you think it’s terrible and you worry about your film not getting sold. None of that matters for these films because none of us are doing this for the money. We just want these stories to be told and seen by the world. We’re all in this for the same reason.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.