When director Kim A. Snyder decided to make a film that would tell the story of the close-knit Newtown community after the tragic 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, she knew was entering into politically fraught waters. But by choosing to focus Newtown not on gun control but, rather, on the town, the families, and the emotional aftermath of the shootings, she turned a controversial issue into something universal — which, she tells Bustle, was exactly her goal all along.
In order to encourage civil discourse on gun violence and tragedies, "You need to make a movie that everyone can sort of just agree on," Snyder says. "There's a collective grief here and trauma over the shooting. People disagree on how to stop it, I think. But the vast majority of Americans think we have to do something different. And the statistics in the research bear that out."
Snyder didn't originally intend to make a documentary about Sandy Hook; she landed on the topic by happenstance. Some colleagues she had worked with years ago contacted her explaining that they had contacts in the area and wanted to know if she was interested in exploring it through film. "I was very reluctant," Snyder recalls. "I knew there had already been hundreds of cameras. I had seen it like everybody else in the country and was devastated and thought, 'Just leave those poor people alone.'"
But Snyder took the risk and went. The first person she spoke to was a priest, Father Bob, who, in a single week, had performed funerals for eight of the 20 kids who were killed. "I was really struck with this man of the cloth who clearly had profound PTSD," Snyder says. "He wasn't really talking about religion, he was just crying every other word and just completely traumatized. I thought, gosh, the ripple effect in this community goes beyond the families."
She never cold-called anyone or directly contacted the families herself, but little by little, Snyder got to know several families within the community. Over three years, her vision for the doc emerged. "My last film took on community as a character," she says, so she wondered, "what would be something after the cameras left that I could do that actually had the collaboration of a lot of people in town on their terms, where I could be giving them their voice?"
The result is a film that focuses more on the families' experiences in the shooting's aftermath, rather than the events of the horrific day or the gun control debates that followed. "Not that I didn't care about that," Snyder says. "I did care more and more, but I just thought there was another way in, that bearing witness was the way to break through this desensitization of the country that this is happening almost every week. Really no one can even keep these shootings straight."
The film also purposely does not discuss the shooter or even name him. "There's so much attention given to these shooters, there's actually a movement called No Notoriety where a lot of victim communities are asking the media to focus on them less," Snyder says. "We did not want to name him."
That approach makes Newtown more of a portrait of grief, which in turn makes it more universal. "I had decided early on more what the film wasn't before I knew what it was," Snyder says, "and I knew it needed to be the point of view of the collective trauma of the community." Yes, the gun control debate naturally arises, but it's seen as a humanitarian issue, not a political one of pro versus con, or Democrat versus Republican. "In terms of the politics, I want to reach the many sensible gun owners we know exist in the country to try to take us out of this crazy polarized space People may not be as far apart on the policies as they think."
And attitudes about gun control are slowly improving, she adds, despite the immobility we may see in laws or with Congress. "Things are changing and they're changing in grassroots ways that people might not know," she says. "One of them is within the medical community. A lot of younger people who see gun violence are speaking out, too. I do think it's reached a tipping point and a crisis point because there are parents and people all over the country for whom the fear level has gotten to too great."
Newtown may not be a doc about gun control, but its powerful subject matter will still resonate with those passionate about the issue. The film had a theatrical run last fall, but is available now on iTunes and VOD, and will air on PBS on April 3, so those who may have been initially reluctant to watch the difficult film will have another opportunity. "People will come up and say, 'I was really scared see this movie and I'm so glad I did,'" Snyder says. "It means there's hope, because you see these people in this community that could be yours and they're moving through the unthinkable. They're like these pillars of strength that define human resilience." And Newtown puts their stories front and center.