It might feel as if this tragedy happened years ago, but the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people died, only took place in February last year. Since then, the Parkland students’ gun safety and voter registration campaign has become such a high-profile part of our public consciousness, and there have been so many more mass shootings, that it’s easy to forget how recently one occurred.
After Parkland offers both a reminder and a more intimate, verite approach than most news stories provide. Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman, producers for ABC’s Nightline, followed survivors in the months just after the shooting. One freshman was in a class where three people around her were killed. Some students were elsewhere in the school. Other survivors weren’t there at all; they are parents who lost their children. The film is not about the events themselves, but about how all these people have grappled with the tragedy. At times the cameras simply trail along as they go about their lives, and at other times the survivors speak directly to the camera.
The directors met the Parkland survivors while working on a Nightline piece, and their no-frills film looks and feels ready-made for television. It doesn’t break any ground cinematically. In fact, its one stylistic touch is a reliance on too many heavy-handed shots of dead flowers. And plenty of news programs have already presented firsthand accounts of Parkland survivors. But the film succeeds as an astutely constructed, sensitive piece of journalism that becomes a moving account of dealing with grief and irreparable loss.
The film includes a well-chosen range of people. Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was killed, begins the film by telling the interviewer to ask him any question at all, however painful. “If someone murdered my kid, I can take anything,” he says. Including that comment offers an insight into his way of coping and is also a deft way for the filmmakers to preempt any charges of exploitation.
The best-known among the people onscreen is David Hogg, then a senior and now known as a founder of the Never Again campaign against gun violence. His sister had four friends who were killed, he tells the filmmakers, explaining his need to try to prevent future shootings. The cameras go along in the car as David, his mother and his sister somberly drive back to school two weeks after the murders, when classes are about to start again.
Sam Zeif, a senior, was not in the killer’s sights, but texted his brother, who was in more immediate danger. We see him driving back to school on that same reopening day, and he tells the camera later that if he couldn’t have faced going back, how could he have expected his two younger brothers to keep going there for years?
Simply by observing so many intimate moments, the film creates a tone of sadness at the idea that anyone so young has to deal with such violence. Brooke Harrison was the freshman whose classmates were killed next to her. Her face still seems like a picture of innocence as she recalls telling a friend to keep pressure on his injury or “you might bleed out.”
The film’s central figures are the father, girlfriend and best friend of Joaquin Oliver, who was also killed. They are heartbreaking in the way they keep his memory alive at a basketball game. Dillon McCooty, his friend since preschool, plays while wearing Joaquin’s jersey. Joaquin’s father, Manuel, was the team coach and insists on carrying on in that role for his son. Joaquin’s girlfriend, Victoria Gonzalez, cheers them on, and all of them say they feel him there. Without comment, After Parkland allows us to see that denial at that point may be a way of continuing to live. At the game, Victoria says something we rarely hear the survivors express, but which is telling: “I’m just really good at putting up a front.”
The film also indicates that activism and talking about the tragedy are ways of dealing with grief. Manuel, who works as a creative director, creates posters with his son’s image and the slogan “Change the Ref,” the name of a nonprofit he and his wife created to help Joaquin’s generation work against gun violence and other issues. He calls his posters and artworks examples of “graphic activism.”
But the film is ultimately less about politics or activism than about remembrance. Its most effective scenes are the most personal. In the fall, Joaquin’s friends go off to college and stop by to say goodbye to his parents. Joaquin had planned to room with those boys, his father says, adding, as if it is an acknowledgement, “He’s not here anymore.” It’s a mark of how closely this clear-eyed film has brought us into these people’s lives that at the end we are likely to wonder, with compassion, how they’re doing today.
Production company: ABC Documentaries
Directors/screenwriters: Emily Taguchi, Jake Lefferman
Producers: Emily Taguchi, Jake Lefferman, Jeanmarie Condon, Steven Baker
Director of Photography: Jake Lefferman
Editors: Brendan Cusack, Karl Dawson
Music: Nathan Halpern
Sales: Cinetic Media
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)