If there’s one theme that immediately stands out in this year’s Sundance Film Festival program, it’s gun violence. Not the way it was in the 1990s when every indie wanted to be a Quentin Tarantino movie and gun violence on screen was the entertainment. This time it’s about the issue of real gun violence in America — the problem with constant mass shootings and the debate over gun control and the 2nd Amendment. But these new films aren’t just having the conversation by themselves and submitting it to the audience. Instead, multiple documentaries and at least one narrative drama will instead provoke discussion through works that appeal first to the heart. The hope is that the viewer will let things migrate to their brains afterwards, and the talking will ensue.
Kicking things off on the festival’s opening night is a short documentary by AJ Schnack, an installment of the new Field of Vision series called Speaking is Difficult. The title has a number of meanings, most literally it’s taken from a statement made by former Congresswoman and shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords in a 2013 hearing, who then actually had difficulty with her speech. It also refers to the people frantically making the 911 calls that make up the soundtrack of the film, as it highlights 25 tragic mass shooting events from as recent as November 2015 going backwards to Giffords’ own incident in early 2011. And of course it’s also about how hard it is for people to discuss these events and the issue overall.
“What we are hoping to say with the film is in the title. It is difficult to talk about this,” Schnack acknowledged in a phone call. “This is obviously an issue that people have a lot of deep feelings about. I think the fact that people have these incredibly strong feelings on both sides has basically led us to a point where having any kind of discussion that has any kind of nuance in it or trying to find solutions together, it has almost been taken away from us.”
Speaking is Difficult reaches a different kind of feeling in us than he’s talking about. At first, the 14-minute film seems like a straightforward play at our senses, and after the first few events that are highlighted through newly captured footage of the shooting sites paired with the 911 audio, we may think we get it. It almost seems too monotonous, though, for the cause. Then, somewhere around the midway point, between the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy and the Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin, during which it sounds like the caller may have been shot while on the line, the doc gets us. And it continues, with just the right amount of time and situations for this pile-on of incidents to work on our emotions. It’s a highly effective short.
Regarding the number of events and which ones to include, Schnack told me he wanted to limit them to situations classified as mass shootings. That meant a minimum amount of casualties (three or four depending on the varied definitions) and cases where there was no or barely any personal connection between the victims and the assailant. No domestic violence, inter-family massacres or gang-related shootings. “We didn’t use four casualties as a strict cutoff,” he clarified. “It was more about both the number of dead and the number of wounded. We just tried to pick a representative selection that showed this was happening all over the country and in a variety of different places.”
Unlike most feature documentaries, the projects produced by Field of Vision can tend to be more immediate and therefore more topical, and apparently they may also be more open-ended in their completion. In those regards, that means Speaking is Difficult could grow in the future. As depressing as that is to admit, and especially as unfortunate as it is for potential new mass shooting victims. Schnack revealed, “If there are more of these events, we will add them to the film. And we’ll republish with the additional location[s]. It will be great if we don’t ever have to add another one, but what’s happened since 2011 is the frequency has increased, and so it’s unlikely we won’t have to add more.”
In the meantime, the film leads to more in a different manner. Its opening-night shorts program is not made up of just documentary works, and that’s a good thing. Speaking is Difficult is sure to stun crowds who first sit through a dark comedy and another narrative about masturbation, among other curated selections, and find themselves unable to let go of its approach to the subject matter. “Examining what happened in the last five years, when there’s been a real change in the frequency of these events, I think it’s a way of just reminding people that you can either just accept that this is the new normal — because it hasn’t always been like this — or you can commit to having a conversation about how to change it,” Schnack said of his film’s intentions.
It’s the tip of the iceberg, and those who see it will hopefully want to seek out the other works at the festival that continue to encourage that conversation. One of them is the feature Newtown, directed by Kim A. Snyder (Welcome to Shelbyville), which is similarly meant to stir up emotional feelings rather than speak to the audience’s thoughts on the gun issue. The film shares a look at a community devastated by such a tragedy and gives a voice to various persons affected, whether or not they directly lost a loved one in the Sandy Hook shooting, where most of the fatalities were very young children. It’s not really political. It’s a story more than a tool, but it could still hit hard anyway. “It’s the kind of film that needed this long to develop,” Schnack told me in anticipation of the doc. “It’s probably coming out exactly at the right time for that story.”
Newtown has its premiere at Sundance on Sunday afternoon (3pm at the Temple Theater), and playing directly after it is Under the Gun (5:30pm at The Marc), a more conventional issue film by director Stephanie Soechtig and producer Katie Couric (the pair behind the obesity issue film Fed Up) that will steer conversation more vocally. It promises to be fair and balanced on the debate, giving the spotlight to both victims’ family members and pro-gun advocates. Presumably the filmmakers personally lean more towards the side of the former, politically, yet that could also not guide the doc nor what it wants its audience to think in the end.
Then, as it turns out for perfect alignment, Sunday night sees the premiere of the narrative feature Dark Night (9pm at the Library Center Theatre), which is inspired by and sounds like a fictionalized depiction of the 2012 movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado (which is also highlighted in Speaking is Difficult). The title obviously references the movie that incident’s victims went to see, The Dark Knight Rises. While not a documentary, Dark Night is said to have a style that appeals to fans of verite cinema, as it’s also being likened to Gus Van Sant’s Columbine shooting-inspired drama, Elephant.
And for those who take in the short film and that triple feature, there’s a panel on Monday afternoon that surely shouldn’t be missed called “Gun Violence in America.” Couric is moderating the discussion between Soechtig, Snyder, Newtown producer Maria Cuomo Cole and the heads of gun control advocacy lobbies Everytown for Gun Safety (John Feinblatt) and Moms Demand Action For Fun Sense in America (Shannon Watts). It sounds more sided, but we can expect that pro-gun angle will come up, at least from the crowd.