Director Kim A. Snyder
Q&A WITH KIM A. SNYDER
Q: How did you find yourself making a movie about Newtown?
A: If it had happened any differently than it did, I don’t think I would have chased this story - there was just such a media frenzy. But there were some folks from a not-for-profit organization who were looking to make a short-form video work and had contacts in the interfaith community, and they asked me to go up there and look into a small production. I went up there only 6 weeks after the tragedy at the behest of the non-profit organization that had connections with Newtown’s interfaith community to help them develop some short form video content. One of the first subjects I met and then interviewed was Father Bob Weiss, who had buried eight of the twenty children in one week. But as time went on, I started to see a larger story and the whole thing morphed.
The way in through the faith community gave me a broader view, which led me to the idea of making a portrait of a town and its collective grief. This felt like something that hadn’t been looked at as much - how organically the whole fabric of the town has been affected. Much of the conversation about Newtown has been rightfully led by the victims’ families, but less has been heard from the other parts of the community.
Q: You feel that more holistic sense in what you’ve done. It definitely doesn’t feel
like a film that meant to use Newtown to serve a specific agenda. There’s something
very spare and elegant about your aesthetic choices, even down to the ways interview
A: I was looking for another way in. I was looking to do something that would pay tribute to the essence of grief and trauma in this town. I was inspired most by that greatest of all documentaries Shoah, and also by films like The Sweet Hereafter and Ordinary People. The process became very much about bearing witness to the enormity of the grief there. Early on, I made a decision that I didn’t want to do anything with recreations, I wanted the film to stay simple. I explored going outside of the immediate town of Newtown to see how far the ripple effects would take me, but in the edit it become purer, more minimalist.
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.
Q: What does bearing witness mean to you?
A: 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. On the first anniversary, we told a local congregation that we would be available to film at their church if anyone had anything they needed to say. For some of these first videos, I left the room and
told them that they could record whatever they needed to. These confessionals were just so raw and powerful - I hadn’t seen anything quite like them. We started to actively seek out more subjects and witnesses. 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.
Q: And it seems like this strategy allowed you to bring in stories we hadn’t heard before.
This occurred to me when we see the custodian of the school. I didn’t remember hearing
that story in the news coverage.
A: Rick hasn’t really spoken in the media, but he’s a hero in town. He was very heroic, and very traumatized. I met him over a year before we filmed with him. Most of those teachers were women, and he seemed like their German Shepherd - he’s so protective of that group. He was one of the first to make a 911 call and tried to secure the doors in the building. He tried to take action to protect the teachers and alert them. But he never spoke to the media.
Q: That openness and curiosity again speaks to your approach. You’re trying to build
a portrait from the ground up.
A: It was all very organic. I would question myself and wonder if I should proceed more systematically. But in the wake of this horrific act, I was interested in showing the connections amongst people that arose from these incredible situations. It was like a thread you pull—one person would suggest another who would suggest another. There are 28,000 people in the town all with stories. I hope this might serve as a catalyst for those who feel compelled to share their stories to do so moving forward.
Q: Newtown could have been nine hours, for sure. How did you accomplish the whittling
A: Much of this is to the credit of my editor, Gabriel Rhodes. He has an approach of building out and up rather than in, and there’s an elegance to his approach. Many of the previous edits were even more spare. My brother saw one and said it was like Shaker furniture. We didn’t want to adorn, so we would try things and then take them off. Gabriel kept me closer to that very minimal ideal. I wanted it to be artful and poetic.
Q: You could have leaned very heavily on the events of that day, but I liked how you
structured that day throughout the film as opposed to just front-loading it.
A: I always intended it to be interwoven like a spine because I wanted to honor the way trauma really works. Traumatized people say they’re frozen in time, moving in and out of memories of the past and of the present. The journey of trauma is without time. A journalist would have provided more facts, information, but I didn’t approach it that way.
Q: How was it working with the families that form the core of the film. That strikes
me as the kind of thing that must have just seemed impossible. Yet, you did it.
A: Intuitively, I didn’t want to approach the families for most of that first year. I didn’t even try. It was almost eight months later when I met the first family. I sensed they were experiencing a feeling of being ‘othered’ and I tried to be straightforward. People never know what to say to anybody in this situation, and I didn’t know what to say, but acknowledging that I didn’t helped begin the trust-building. They felt I was working gently with them and would introduce me to more people. We built our movie via word of mouth.
Q: Newtown never becomes a traditional verite film—it couldn’t—but there’s a sense as
it continues of a kind of awakening with the families. A coming back to life.
A: They’re getting their bearings a little.
Q: Something feels like it’s changed for them, when it might have been easy to leave
them feeling trapped in amber.
A: There was no way to force this into being a traditional three-act story, it wouldn’t have been honest. At three years your grief is still enormous. I wanted to be honest to the idea that there’s no closure. Still, by year three they had had certainly changed from where they were in year one. How do you tell a story while acknowledging that these people aren’t going to take big leaps from A-Z? You look for tiny movements and in that you can find hope and resilience and all these things that sounds so cliché. I hope that gives some uplift to a film that’s so darn sad.
Q: Have the families depicted in the film seen the film?
A: The week before picture lock I felt compelled to show them parts of it as they were able. The timing sucked because it was right before the anniversary. I set a date for each family individually, since they’re all at different places in their grief. I gave them many options for screening – I offered to get on the phone, talk them through; come sit with them; a transcript; watch the whole movie or parts as they liked. Eventually they all opted to watch with me, three nights in a row. Two out of three families opted to skip the beginning. The reaction was pretty consistent - they were all very affected but also felt that it honors their children. That it had beauty in it.
Q: What are your hopes for the film?
A: I hope people will see it as an artful film about grief and collective trauma. I hope that it will also put a human face on the issues of gun violence. I’d like to see it take that dialogue into a less polarized space. I saw so much dignity in Newtown, and I hope the film honors that. I hope people think about how we deal with grief in America and challenged we are with this.
After three years of making this film, and sitting with the material in editing for over a year, I am grateful for how powerfully it seems to move people.