Overview: More than 32,000 people die from gun violence every year in America, an average of 88 people per day. REQUIEM FOR THE DEAD: AMERICAN SPRING 2014 highlights a few of the estimated 8,000 individuals who died from gunfire that spring, drawing exclusively on found media – news accounts, police investigations and social media – to shine a light on little-known stories of tragic loss, bringing the victims to life in their own words and images. Whether by homicide, accident or suicide, a wide cross-section of Americans – men and women, young and old, from every racial background – are victims and perpetrators of such gun violence. With images from social media postings, frantic 911 calls, police reports and videos, each story is hauntingly laid out through the unmediated expressions that remain. This documentary places the viewer in victims’ and their families’ lives, capturing the shock and grief felt by their loved ones as the survivors are left to make sense of the horrific events.
Expectations: It is always good to have statistics I think. No matter what the topic is if you see the numbers and the facts spelled out it in front of you it helps you lock that information into your mind that much better. It is a more effective way of retaining the message. The statistics pointed out in the overview above make a sad commentary on societal ills. Gun violence can easily touch us all. The stories are sad for sure, but there is a lesson to learn here.
Gut Reaction: The eight stories here are all different, but all tragic. In 87 minutes the film covers most of the scenarios of gun violence. Accidental shootings by kids, misfirings by adults; drive-bys and gang violence and murder/suicides brought on by depression, anger and/or marital strife. It all grips you and reminds you that far too much death at the hands of guns, regardless if accidental or intentional, happens in this country. Think about all the incidents that make onto the national news alone, as recent as the shootings in that Charleston church.
Now I am not saying that people don’t have the right to have firearms. I grew up with them all through my formative years, but you got to respect them and understand their dangers. Everyone who chooses to bear arms or has the notion of using one to harm should see this documentary to see the level of loss, grief and devastation such violence leaves behind.
I know the use of archival footage; TV reports and social media snippets are not new to the documentary format. However, this film uses them all quite well to tell the story of each case. Coupled with haunting or somber music it weaves a tight story for each segment. Together it gives just a small look at the lives lost to gun violence and the misuse of such deadly weapons.
Bonus: Here is an interview HBO had with the production team of Shari Cookson and Nick Doob.
HBO: How did you two get involved with making this film?
Shari Cookson: The idea came from [HBO Documentary Films president] Sheila [Nevins], who wanted to do another gun film. HBO has done a number in the past, and it was time to do another. From the very beginning, we were trying to figure out what we could do that would be different. It’s always tricky. You can do recreations, or you can talk to people to give you testimonials. We didn’t want to do that because we like to work in the present tense and we like to make relationships with our characters, so that their lives lead us through the story. We started trying to figure out who people were because we had a lot of headlines.
HBO: You hadn’t yet landed on your approach of using found footage and social media posts?
SC: Not at all. We had these headlines early on — probably about 500 of them. We were looking at the headlines, and I don’t even know how you would choose a story. What would draw you in? A lot of times when looking at a headline, you wanted to know more, so we’d Google to find a picture. What more? When we dug deeper, we’d find Facebook pages. Gun shootings…one day someone is living their life and the next day they’re shot dead in a moment. What were their lives like? What did they leave behind? What were the issues that might have caused this? Were there warning signs? That’s where we turned to the internet and we started to find these time capsules on Facebook and other sites, where people were living their lives.
Nick Doob: I thought we were going to go shoot somewhere. I thought we were going to go get involved with people. What happened is that we really turned to the internet in a serious way. But this wasn’t really the film we had been talking about at this point. Shari made what she kind of described as a casting reel of possible people to focus on, but it was like a real film she was making. It had headlines and music and posts. We brought that to Sheila, not expecting that she would say that was the way to do it. But she just immediately recognized that this was the way to do this film. It was sort of a bold move at that point.
HBO: How interesting that you thought you were putting together a research reel, but it turned out to be the rough cut of the film that you’d eventually make.
ND: That’s exactly what happened. There was a moment of realizing that in that meeting with Sheila. It scared me that we were making a kind of “slide show.” You sort of forget that it’s stills. Somewhere in my brain, it hasn’t registered that some whole sequences are made up of stills. The joke was that this was the “jpeg movie.”
HBO: Did you approach the families of the victims at all?
ND: We have approached the families now, but we didn’t then.
SC: Just at the end, just to let them know that it’s going to be on. The whole time making it we were just in this sort of world of our subjects with what we could find on the internet. It was like a scavenger hunt.
HBO: What are you hoping that people take away from this film? Are you hoping to effect change?
ND: How could you not want that? There’s something crazy going on. The thing that I hope, anyway, is that a kind of outrage builds up as you watch the film, this parade of deaths. There’s nothing stopping the shootings. There’s no government entity that can stop this kind of relentless dying. The film is trying to get that sense through what we call the “ticker,” the number of deaths going by.
SC: In this whole political environment about guns, it seems like the dead should be able to weigh in as well. They should have a voice in it. It’s easy to forget that human beings are dying. We are giving voice to that part of it. I think it stands on its own, what those people’s lives were like. You can’t argue that they shouldn’t be dead. To create something that would allow the country to collectively acknowledge and mourn the loss of humanity that’s going on daily was a guiding idea that we had.
ND: We weren’t trying to make a film that was going to get rid of guns, we were just telling stories.
SC: We were only making decisions based on the people and the integrity of their lives. That is what we were trying to get right. We weren’t trying to figure out how to do something that would further the cause of anything. Truth tends to stand on its own.
In Conclusion: Bridging these main stories are dozens of headlines, brief, stark and shocking, coupled with vibrant photos of the people whose deaths are recounted. The film contains imagery for more than a hundred victims of gun violence in spring 2014, which is a small fraction of the 8,000-plus estimated to have died in that three-month period. It is a very poignant and touching piece.
Next Week: Debuting on 06.29 at 9:00pm is LARRY KRAMER IN LOVE & ANGER a look at the gay rights advocate, playwright and icon of the cause.