Parkland Survivors Express Mix of Cynicism, Hope for Change on Gun Violence: "We're Here to Force Them"

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
The 'After Parkland' subjects and filmmakers ahead of the film's Tribeca world premiere

At the world premiere of 'After Parkland' at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday night, the team behind the documentary following those who were affected by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy spoke about grief, loss and pushing to end school shootings.

A week after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., left 17 people dead, a number of survivors of the tragedy met with members of the Trump administration and other mass-shooting survivors at the White House. The event was covered widely at the time and is included early in the new documentary After Parkland, which follows the family members and friends of those who were killed in the months after the tragedy, with the shooting survivors who spoke at the White House gathering recalling what was going through their head at the time.

Since that meeting more than a year ago, more mass shootings have occurred in the U.S., with what's become disturbing frequency.

And when survivor Sam Zeif was asked by an audience member, after the world premiere screening of After Parkland at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival on Friday night, if he and those affected by the shooting had "received any support from the government," Zeif put it bluntly: "very little."

"I was just in Boston a couple of weeks ago, speaking at WBUR, with the governor [and other officials] and there was great support behind them but it's not done," he added. "It didn't seem like there was much talk of change from them. Being Massachusetts, they're talking about their gun laws and the success that it's given them, but there hasn't been much urge for change from the government unless it's forced, and that's what we're here to do. We're here to force them to change."

Fellow survivor and film subject Victoria Gonzalez, who lost boyfriend Joaquin Oliver in the shooting, and March for Our Lives activist Lauren Hogg, who was galvanized, like her brother and film subject David Hogg, by her experience surviving the Parkland shooting, meanwhile, expressed cynicism about elected officials' commitment to ending or preventing gun violence.

Gonzalez said she believes people look at her and the other survivors "with pity."

"They look at you and they want to make you feel like, 'yeah we hear you, we're listening to you right now but tomorrow we're going to forget and do something completely different.' That's how it's been with almost every politician or everyone I've spoken to personally," she said.

Lauren Hogg echoed those thoughts, saying that as she lobbies with politicians in Washington, D.C., "We see the kind of 'yeah, sure, smile and nod,' just so they can take a photo with survivors of a shooting at Douglas so they can put it on their Twitter so their platform can see it."

And while she and her fellow students said "there's definitely so much more that needs to be done," they agreed progress was being made, albeit slowly, in addressing gun violence.

"I think slowly things are happening," Gonzalez told The Hollywood Reporter. "Not fast enough definitely. But we're definitely taking the right steps to start, I would say."

Brooke Harrison, who was in the first classroom that was attacked at Stoneman Douglas and is featured in the doc, said to THR, "I do think that there's still a lot that needs to be done, but I do think that for the most part we're heading in the right direction, and we are making tremendous progress as teenagers. It just shows you how much in the country needs to change when the youth really had to take charge of the situation."

Lauren Hogg said that part of what gave her hope that progress is being made is seeing young people motivated to vote on this issue.

"I think one of the greatest changes that I've seen in the last year is the rising youth voter turnout and a lot of that has been because of organizations like March for Our Lives and Change the Ref's efforts to get young people to vote, specifically on ending gun violence and preventing gun violence," she told THR.

The film shows how survivors like David Hogg and Joaquin Oliver's father, Manuel Oliver, became activists. And students in Parkland and beyond are shown participating in the nationwide school walkout that took place a month after the shooting and demonstrating in D.C. and elsewhere at the March for Our Lives rallies that took place in the spring of 2018.

It also shows David Hogg embarking on the March for Our Lives tour the summer after he graduated from high school, which, Lauren Hogg said after the screening, helped register hundreds of thousands of people to vote and is the type of initiative they'll continue as the 2020 elections approach.

"We went to over 20 states, we had over 120 stops over the summer and every single stop we made we talked with people, we registered voters," Lauren Hogg said. "But I think what we did this summer is a really good example of what we're going to do in the future. I know March for Our Lives and our chapters, we have over 300 chapters across the country now from our sister marches, we've registered over 200,000 people to vote, which is crazy to me."

And she remains optimistic that the young people who were motivated to march after Parkland will march to the polls.

"Something that I think a lot about when I'm scared if this issue will fade away, if this issue will not stay [with] people, when voting time comes around, I think of those images we saw, those thousands and thousands of kids walking out," she said. "I think in the next four years, by the next presidential election, by the next midterm election, those kids are going to be the same kids that instead of marching out of their school are going to be marching to the ballot boxes and thinking of gun violence when they go in [to vote]."

She also expressed a somber acknowledgement that the prevalence of mass shootings will keep the problem in the news.

"Something that took me a couple of months to realize after seeing all of these other shootings happen, is that gun violence unfortunately is a self-reminding issue," she said. "Every time that it slips your mind, somehow it comes back. And I think, unfortunately, that's how it's going to stay in the news and stay one of our largest voting issues until we end this gun violence."

Beyond the activism and political efforts of the shooting survivors, After Parkland shows how the friends and family members of those who were killed in the tragedy deal with the omnipresent grief they experience as they engage in everyday activities, reminded of those they lost.

And it was that exploration of the effects of trauma that drew producer Jeanmarie Condon and directors Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman, who first traveled to Parkland for their work with ABC's Nightline but soon realized there was more there, to this project.

"I've always been interested in the question of, 'How do the people who've been faced with such immeasurable, senseless trauma, how do you extract meaning from that? What do you do after the cameras have moved on? What are those quiet moments like when you gather strength and keep going?' I wanted to just follow them," Condon told THR. "We did not know what was going to happen. I watched what Emily and Jake were getting in the very beginning and I said, 'You know what, guys? Step back; you have to make a documentary about this because these people trust you and let's see what happens.' We didn't know. I think the answer that we came up with at the end of how do you find meaning in the face of this senseless trauma [is] in the families and communities that form in its wake. I think that was really so beautiful, and it helped me understand that, and I hope that this isn't just about gun violence. I hope that this is a film that will speak, and I honestly mean this, to people who've suffered all kinds of trauma. How do you give meaning to that?"

Taguchi added after the screening, "What really drew us to these families that invited us back repeatedly is that the longer we stayed, we started to see these moments when they were taking these steps forward from a really horrific and tragic event and putting one foot forward after the other and there was a real poignancy to those moments and that's what we were really inspired by."

And Taguchi and Lefferman hope viewers come away from the film with more of an understanding of how such a profound loss affects survivors of trauma.

"I think what we hope is that they gain insight into sort of the human side of these events, what a traumatic event can do to a family and disrupt a life and really the ripple effects it can have on a community," Lefferman said.

Taguchi added, "And that for every time there's a headline about a shooting and a mass shooting that there are these families who go through grieving and trauma for the rest of their lives."