By John Noonan

What made you approach the subject of Newtown and what happened there? “The story found me. As big as the story was, I wouldn’t have chased it. But there was a not-for-profit group, who I had worked with in the past, who had connections. They called me up some weeks later after the event and said, ‘Would you go up and explore some short form stories?’ I was really reluctant, because every news outlet in the world was there, as you can imagine. But I went, and some of my first interactions were with the interfaith community. I got to know this priest who had buried eight of the 20 children within a week. He was suffering from a lot of trauma, and from there, it just got deeper and deeper. I began making relationships, and I realised that as much media coverage as there had been, the community really hadn’t been given a voice of their own. My producer and I hadn’t seen a treatment of communal trauma, of collective grief and moving through it. We wanted to tell that story from the different perspectives of one town.”

When stories come out about these kind of things, the focus can often be on the perpetrator. In Newtown, [the killer] Adam Lanza is never mentioned, and that brings the focus back onto the community… “Right. It really is a story of aftermath. The story is set up by that first responder who says that the world doesn’t need to know graphically what happened, but they need to know emotionally. So this is a treatment of what a community, what any town, looks like in the wake of this kind of gun violence that keeps happening.”

How did you approach the families and residents? “I didn’t meet the families until eight months after I started, which was four or five weeks after the shooting. But it was very organic and there was a ripple effect. So, if the Bardens [one of the families who lost a child at Sandy Hook] were bringing up their neighbour, Melissa, and how she had been impacted and how close she was to the children, I would say, ‘Well, what do you think? Do you think it would be meaningful to talk to her?’ The people who participated found a cathartic reason in doing so. I never went with cold lists of the 26. I just don’t feel comfortable with that kind of treatment.”

Newtown director, Kim A. Snyder
Newtown director, Kim A. Snyder

It’s not really a political film, it doesn’t have a flag to wave, but it is a wakeup call in some respects to gun control. “I didn’t want to make a classic advocacy film. I didn’t want to do that kind of film. I’m not interested in that. I was drawn personally to the psychological and social fabric; to the universal ideas of grief. I kept thinking about the film, Ordinary People, and how that was such a great depiction of what happens in one nuclear family. And then if you think about community as the extended family, how much more complicated it becomes. How do people begin to reintegrate? These things were much more interesting, and part of the less trespassed terrain than going into the mind of the killer. At Sundance, a piece that was written said that [Newtown] was an accidental political statement born of empathy, and that emphasised the way that I felt. Underneath it, if there was a political objective, it was certainly to break through desensitisation, which is dangerous and invariable given the frequency of these things. It was a historic event. It was the worst mass shooting of school children in history, and I did feel like it needed to be acknowledged so that you don’t forget. My producer [Maria Cuomo Cole] and I wanted to do something that moved beyond failed political discourse. So when David Wheeler [who lost his son, Ben] says, ‘It’s a natural human desire to protect the rest of the world’, is that political? That human desire to want to do something, to change something, to regulate something. I mean, you did it in Australia.”

You touched upon the word desensitisation, and obviously you don’t want to be, but it does seem to happen so regularly that there is that danger. “The news mentioned that children had been killed, and people asked how many. And I remember thinking so distinctly, what does that number have to be? Are we living in this Clockwork Orange world where it has to be 50 for it really to be something? So the film is a way to pierce through that.”

A scene from Newtown
A scene from Newtown

You mentioned before about going down the less trespassed path. With your filmmaking in general, do you think, ‘We’ve done this kind of story before. I want to go this way?’ “Social cause documentaries have been made forever. The style is dangerously too close to hardcore advocacy, even if they feel like they’re on the right path. It wasn’t a style that I was interested in. I was more drawn to the narrative. I was rewatching movies like The Sweet Hereafter and Ordinary People. I was definitely educating myself. I wasn’t a gun reform activist before this. I was as concerned as anybody else, but it wasn’t like I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to make a gun reform movie, and Newtown is a story that will really tell that well.’ I was just captured by this tiny town that was trying to find its way forward. I was very moved by the amount of strength and grace that I saw. The kind of hurdles that they had to overcome. I was just struck with the dignity. I hate using the word resilience, because it’s such a pat word, but there is an anatomy of resilience and hope there. I keep thinking about our President’s words about the audacity of hope. These people illustrate that a lot. They will never quit trying to fight for the legacy of their kids, to hope that they can do something to prevent this from happening to other families.”

How have the community of Newtown responded to the final film? “Well, Newtown has a population of 28,000 people, and obviously this film renders just a handful of people. But I have seen that there has been, for some people, healing. People just couldn’t talk for a while; it was just so unspeakable. What happened was that groups became somewhat siloed in town. So you had survivors and you had teachers. You had first responders. In some way you had people stay in their own groups based on what they had gone through. And it was hard for the different people to acknowledge one another’s pain. People were stoic. They were reluctant to say how much they were hurting because they thought it was disrespectful to the families who had lost everything, and yet there was so much hurt as a community. So I think this was an opening for people to acknowledge ‘Gosh, I was so wrapped up in my own journey, I couldn’t see yours.’”

Newtown plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on August 1 (TONIGHT!!!!). To buy tickets to Newtown, head to the official website.

  • John Kenny
    John Kenny
    1 August 2016 at 7:49 pm

    I’d be an emotional wreck having to watch it was so sad when this drastic shameful loss of young lives happened. However I do wish that everyone would stop saying well we you did it in Australia. You and others need to visit Hammerli Way, Shalvey, NSW and see the illegal gun club with 14 open ranges 40 metres from homes where rifles and shotguns blast away uncontrolled. Ther is Shalvey Primary school 100 metres away as the crow flies and who cares, I do but not John Howard or any other authoritarian not those agencies waiting for their government grant. http://www.bpc

Leave a Reply