Us Kids: Kim Snyder’s Parkland Documentary

Valentine’s Day 2018 was supposed to be unremarkable at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Another humid day in the tropics. But when a former student entered the halls with an AR-15 strapped to his back, yet another American-as-apple-pie tragedy unfolded. Seventeen people were killed in what has become known as the deadliest school shooting in US history. Where other mass shootings in America spawned empty prayers, useless shrugs and political mudslinging, this one carried victims who were ready to speak. The survivors of the Parkland shooting spearheaded a movement that would radically shift the national narrative surrounding gun violence and gun control advocacy. Documentary filmmaker Kim A. Snyder was already sadly familiar with this issue, having directed the Peabody Award-winning Newtown (2016), and fate, itself, seems to have ushered her into documenting the public activities and behind-the-media portraits of a group of extraordinary teenagers.

While Newtown was a cross-section of American grief, Us Kids is a study in young American rage. A rage that would carry students like Cameron Kasky, David Hogg, Emma González, Samantha Fuentes, and Bria Smith straight into the national media spotlight and, unfortunately, into the cross-hairs of Second Amendment zealots and conspiracy theorists branding them as “actors”. But Snyder’s documentary treats them like the young adults that they are, cataloguing their tireless efforts to shape and reshape policy and often buckling under the pressure of being unwilling activists.

Kim Snyder made her directorial debut with the 2000 documentary, I Remember Me, recounting her own struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In 2008, she expanded her philanthropic efforts by working with the non-profit BeCause Foundation to direct and produce short films including Alone No Love, One Bridge to the Next and Crossing Midnight. Her 2011 film Welcome to Shelbyville was selected as Gucci-Tribeca Documentary Fund grant recipient. Newtown won a Peabody Award and was nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.

FRONTRUNNER speaks with Snyder about the genesis of Us Kids, how it has shaped her as a filmmaker and activist, and how these mountain-moving young people plan to keep their heads on straight through a lifelong battle.

Photo credit: PBS Independent Lens

I remember when everything went down in Parkland, and I thought to myself, “I sure hope someone’s making a documentary about this.” How did it start for you?

I had made this film, Newtown, back in 2016 that premiered at Sundance. I inadvertently fell into the story of a community reeling from gun violence; this historic event that we all remember. That story was really about the grief, the fallout of a community; a lot of adult grief, in these parents. I thought, “I’m done with this.” I was exploring a completely different project that happened to be in Florida. Weirdly enough, I was in Tallahassee when Parkland happened. I followed things like Pulse and Vegas and thought that after Newtown, it started to escalate. I became a deep advocate for all of these measures of gun violence prevention. But I really felt like I needed to move on, and then this happened. I was on the steps of the Capitol with the mayor, and these kids all arrived in busloads from Parkland, demanding change from their governor. It was really the beginnings of the movement, there.

I was on my way to LA for some meetings, but then I thought, “Oh, I have to go down to Parkland.” I went down to film and was so struck by – there’s this little tiny scene in the beginning where the kids are standing there in a big group saying, “You can be angry, you can be sad.” I was capturing these raw emotions of middle-schoolers who’d lost friends. I quickly realised what I wasn’t done with – with my Newtown work – in terms of my trajectory was the sense that we have a nation of traumatised youth. It wasn’t just those Parkland kids, but those in the inner cities that have this trauma from gun violence every day. What are we doing about those tens of thousands of kids, and what’s the cost of it? Parkland happened, and I was like, “These are those kids.” It was really important that I tell a story of movement-building, not just a story of go-get-those-famous-kids. Nor did I want to make Newtown again. I didn’t want it to be about Parkland. I wanted it to be this catalyst of something larger that spoke to trauma of youth. I wanted it to be a treatment on rage and anger of this generation. It was bigger than Parkland and bigger than guns, for me. Because of my work with Newtown, I was put in touch with Emma [Gonzalez] and her parents. She had already started to take off in her weird, unwanted celebrity. They said, “We trust you.” That evolved into following the whole group of them across the country all summer. Starting with that March [For Our Lives], they say, “This isn’t about us, this isn’t about Parkland or white, privileged kids.” The idea of inclusion was something I needed to honor because it was so important to them, early on.

The analogy David [Hogg] makes about the Vietnam War, that had those elements of kids seeing their friends come back in body bags, saying, “I cannot stand with this.” It’s a social justice issue. Sam was critical for me, in that sense, to weave into the story what it’s like to have these feelings of trauma. Every one of those kids, even the famous ones, we’re going through some throes of PTSD. It’s interesting where we’re sitting now in the COVID and Black Lives Matter context, and it feels completely relevant in a scope that’s way beyond where it started in that little town. This isn’t a gun violence-prevention movie, hopefully it feels like a movie about a generation that’s conflicted between feeling understandably nihilistic, and that they’re just kids. Remembering our own selves at seventeen, you have to be kind of energetic and hopeful at some level, because you have a long time to live.

There’s some nuance there that helps with the psychology, helping people through what is the journey of the film. Cameron [Kasky] was really willing to call it out for what it is. He’s been through the blender, the “snake pit”, as you call it. You have a story to tell, and people are convinced that you’re actors, convinced that you somehow are not authentic: you take on the baggage of the entire country when you decide to be these kids.

Yes. I remember asking Emma [González] something about being fetishised by the liberals. She said, “I’m so glad you used that word,” because you get that. People come up to her and say, “Oh, you’re so brave.” They didn’t ask for this. It’s like that guy who’s not a liberal saying, “You just want to get your face on the cover of magazines!” They say, “No! We’re just kids…we’re furious! We had to do this!” I’m glad you brought up Cameron’s line because post-COVID, [it’s] the most prescient line. So about their generation. You’ve got to be nihilistically optimistic or blissfully ignorant. He’s describing the choice every young generation makes in hard times. Do you just try to live your seventeen-year-old life, or do you do more? He’s saying, “I’m pretty sure the world is going to be very different in fifty years, little did you know it was going to be different in fifty days.” Not in fifty days, but very shortly [after], it became a different world. He’s not judging his friends who don’t do as much, he says, “I wish I could, but I have all this pain from needing to do things.” That’s what gives me hope. Some people will push back and say, “Is this generation special?” After World War II, when they said they wanted to be the next “greatest generation”, but they are certainly living in different times than when I came of age. It requires them to make different choices.

That’s exactly right. I’d like to explore this idea of the kids going off the script, feeling totally shocked by the experience, but their ability to have ballast. Something to allow them to keep upright and stay on-message, despite them trying to be manipulated by that CNN Town Hall, feeling as if the media wanted something from them. Being on the other side of the camera is very difficult. I love how you make a point of that. While we want something from the other, how do you deal with something so raw and so sensitive as this kind of trauma?

Emma set a tone when she gave that first speech two days after, where she said, “We call BS.” That’s why it captured attention. “We’re not buying this. We’re mad, and we’re going to do something about it.” Then, the media seizes on this as, “This is extraordinary and different, a different reaction to other mass shootings.”

What we tried to weave was that we [the kids] are of a generation where we don’t need network news. We have social media, we know how to do this in a different way. First they give up, and then they try to get the narrative back saying, “We’re telling this on our terms.” The idea that in three weeks, they were able to get a million people to come to D.C. from five continents is extraordinary. And it inspired Greta [Thunberg]. To me, I thought of it as in the Arab Spring, these historic moments: you had the self-immolation of this guy in Tunisia that set off social media, getting together everyone in Cairo, right? A lot of people were suspicious that, “That’s just some adult media moment. They didn’t do this.” But they did.

When I started this, I didn’t want to be guilty of lionising and fetishising these kids, myself. It was challenging, though, as I traveled with them and saw the nuance and the toll, they were leading the superhero journey in the classic sense. I thought about Batman, how his parents were killed in front of him in Gotham City, and he’s got to lead the life he did to go avenge their deaths. It felt like a graphic novel, like that. There was nothing to lose, they were oblivious and angry. They’re just being smart and angry teenagers. Were they media-savvy? Some of them, yes. That kind of cynicism went away from me. I watched them do their homework every night. They were sitting every night, learning the gun laws in the next state they were going to go to just try and move the meter.\n\nIt was hard not to be completely humbled, saying, “What was I doing at that age?” My going in to college I was really happy to be invited into certain graduation parties. They were really thrust into something crazy. They got death threats, that was all real. It was challenging to get their trust because in the beginning, I was media. I didn’t want to seem sanctimonious like, “Long-form docs are so special.” Kids that age don’t really watch that format. They were overwhelmed because they didn’t expect all of this attention.

Photo credit: Kim Snyder/Sundance Institute

Was there real fear for you in the process and did you think to yourself about how you wanted to handle the fact that these kids were being attacked by their elders? It’s hard not to feel embarrassed that we treat our youth this way.

It’s a really perceptive line of thinking. What does it take to really respect this generation? Like Cameron says in the beginning, “You guys fucked up. You suck. Step back, we got this.” They mature along the way, though. Something I didn’t put in the film, but David says, “We need your wisdom. We need you alongside us.” That’s, hopefully, what happened with the making of the film. That’s what I tried to do. Watching them on the road, especially the scenes in Texas, I was so taken. David was like a Zen master, he would go out and totally defuse these people. My whole crew was like, “Did you see that? That was a wild martial arts move.” Kids are sometimes accused of being impatient, but they had such patience. Those scenes went on for an hour. They sat there and really listened. The fact that they went out there, on the ground, was completely different than seeing them on CNN. They were completely authentic.

How did they judge any sense of accomplishment? I keep feeling like I really want them to get somewhere and catch traction. You want that success for them.

Since they did this, it’s undeniable that they had an enormous affect on the Midterm [Elections]. It’s really relevant that in November, that their goal (pre-COVID) was to exceed the Nixon-era-Vietnam youth voter turnout. Then, poor kids, they had COVID come in. They are adamant about not framing this as a bipartisan political issue, just an issue of civic engagement. As they say in the film, “We just want morally just leaders.” They’re very conscious and deliberate about tying it into Black Lives Matter, and recognising the intersectionality of the movements. They now have over 300 chapters. Since they came on the scene, an enormous amount of state-level gun reform legislation has passed. You could say to someone, “Those kids really flipped the House [of Representatives].”

I think the film’s more relevant now than it was in January. Because of COVID and Black Lives Matter, their whole intersectionality thing is playing out. They understand more than anyone else what a public health crisis looks like. This film is really their film, and we’re working alongside the movement. The whole process of making it was collaborative. It was very important to me that I prove to them that there can be this other experience of claiming your narrative. A whole bunch of those kids have now run for elected offices. What’s exciting is that even Greta, herself, said, “This is what inspired me. Parkland.” How do you measure a whole globe of kids having a new role model and becoming civically engaged in a way that they weren’t some years back? They want to be Bria and David and Emma. The real message is hope and courage: those should be the values. I sort of channel them.

Photo credit: Ryan Pfluger
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