Bearing witness to the unbearable in Newtown

In this 2011 photo provided by Mark Barden, his son Daniel Barden runs alongside a school bus in Newtown, Conn. Daniel was among those killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings on Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown. The photo is shown in the documentary Newtown. The Woodstock Film Festival will hold a special screening of Newtown at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck on Wednesday, August 24 at 8:45 p.m. Director Kim Snyder, producer Maria Cuomo Cole and a couple whose child was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School will be in attendance. (Mile 22 / Handout)

In this 2011 photo provided by Mark Barden, his son Daniel Barden runs alongside a school bus in Newtown, Conn. Daniel was among those killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings on Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown. The photo is shown in the documentary Newtown. The Woodstock Film Festival will hold a special screening of Newtown at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck on Wednesday, August 24 at 8:45 p.m. Director Kim Snyder, producer Maria Cuomo Cole and a couple whose child was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School will be in attendance. (Mile 22 / Handout)

During the opening of Kim Snyder’s documentary Newtown, faint playground sounds hover at the edge of hearing. A roving camera captures brief scenes of idyllic suburban celebration, a Labor Day parade: cheerleaders, marching bands, smiling faces infused, like the day itself, with sunny brightness.

Then it’s December, and the voice of a 911 dispatcher is heard trying to calm a woman’s quavering voice: “Please Jesus please Jesus please Jesus.” The camera catches police racing from their vehicles as they struggle to understand what’s happening inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

We all know what happened that day. For those of us who may have forgotten the exact numbers, 20 first-graders were murdered that day, along with six of their educators. But knowing that, knowing every “fact” about the horrific massacre, brings little understanding and even less comfort. So why would anyone want to relive the events of that terrible day in a documentary film?

Newtown makes it clear in often-painful detail that every inexplicable tragedy has a context: stories that precede the event and ones that happen in its wake. Snyder has set out to provide that context, to show the heartbreaking sunny days that turned cold and grey that December morning. Its ambitious goal is to look for answers that no one can answer.

Snyder does this by looking at the massacre and its aftermath events through the eyes of people whose lives were inexorably and terribly changed: a tough-as-nails state police officer, an EMT, a teacher. But its primary, heartbreaking focus is on five of the families who lost their children that morning.

Newtown isn’t the angry diatribe that it could have been. In its careful, solemn way, you could say that Newtown is a testament to the need for gun control. The film touches briefly on the legislative efforts that some of the parents made – successfully in Connecticut, predictably unsuccessfully in Washington.

But Snyder doesn’t linger there. She hews very closely and respectfully to the stories that the parents tell her about their beautiful children. In interviews, she has said that the film was her effort to bear witness to the tragedy: “Something happens through simply bearing witness, through experiencing empathy in front of something deeply emotional. Questions like: ‘What is it like that your best friend got their kid back, but you didn’t? How do you repair that relationship?’ This film became about more than looking at Newtown as just another gun-violence incident.”

With that decision, she took Newtown into an elevated realm that very few documentaries are able to reach. She says that she was inspired by, among other fictional films, Claude Lanzmann’s epic Shoah, in which survivors of the Holocaust, speaking directly to the camera, recounted their experience with the unspeakable.

Snyder again: “I thought a lot about the core idea that if you don’t document and remember something, you can’t prevent it from happening again. And that remembering can be cathartic.”

For some of her earliest interviews, Snyder said that she left the room, telling her subjects that they could record whatever they needed to. “There was no one I approached who didn’t feel like they needed or wanted to do this. There was some kind of healing in it for everybody. I was seeing emotions I had never experienced or seen before.”

You always have to wonder, when faced with such a powerful and moving film about such a controversial issue, whether the people who most need to see the film ever will. The temptation is to think that someone else – someone who, for example, opposes gun control – needs most to see this film. But that’s not true, any more than anti-Semites most “needed” to see Shoah. The miserable polarization that has become so evident on the national political scene has made it clear how nearly impossible it is for anyone to convince “the other” of how wrong they are. The only people we can truly affect are ourselves.

A film like Newtown can deepen our knowledge and understanding not just of “the issue,” but also of the people who have been directly and tragically affected by the issue. By putting a human face on what remains for most of us an “issue,” Snyder has opened possibilities for new action, be it legislative or personal. Newtown, like Shoah, is a human document that, in depicting the depths of inhuman action, also reveals the depths of human empathy, the struggle against the dark by human forces of light.

The Woodstock Film Festival will hold a special screening of Newtown at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck on Wednesday, August 24 at 8:45 p.m. Director Kim Snyder, producer Maria Cuomo Cole and a couple whose child was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School will be in attendance. For further information, visit https://newtownfilm.com or www.woodstockfilmfestival.com.

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