Interview: Kim A. Snyder on the Unrelenting and Undeniable March to End Gun Violence in “Us Kids”

Kim A. Snyder was standing on the steps of the Florida State Capitol when news that would shake the state to its core had broken out of Parkland, where an active shooter had been apprehended at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after taking the lives of 17 students and faculty and injuring 17 more. The filmmaker had become unfortunately all too familiar with such a tragedy, devoting her life since 2012 to chronicling the fallout at Sandy Hook Elementary in “Newtown” where a sense of grief hung in the air as parents grieved their children and the kids that had survived struggled to reconcile what they had experienced with having their whole lives ahead of them. After completing a feature and later a short that would keep gun violence in the national conversation, Snyder decided she had to move on herself, making this moment in Tallahassee particularly fraught when she had her camera all ready, as well as a unique understanding of the situation at hand, yet could be easily forgiven for not wanting to dive back into such a sensitive subject.

“It was a strange thing,” Snyder recalls. “‘Newtown’ was a whole different kind of a movie about collective grief and that horrific mark in American history. Then all of the horrible shootings and gun violence continued to escalate in our country since that time, so I saw the horrors of Pulse and Las Vegas and all the other countless mass shootings, which only account for a small percentage [of overall gun violence], and when the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas happened, [and I saw] hundreds of kids came up from Parkland and throughout the state at the state capitol, that combined with Emma Gonzalez’s memorable speech down in Fort Lauderdale was where [I saw] the spark of something different that had changed in the conversation around gun violence.”

In fact, if Snyder had previously captured a community looking for answers in “Newtown” when those in government were egregiously slow to respond to their incalculable loss, “Us Kids” exhilarates in following the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas who weren’t waiting around to take action. When underclassmen such as Gonzalez and David Hogg were seizing the national spotlight in the weeks after the school massacre to advocate for stronger gun regulation, Snyder takes audiences behind the scenes of the March for Our Lives movement, which not only was remarkable in how quickly it came together, but as “Us Kids” reveals, the courage it called upon from those who were still processing the trauma they experienced s recently as they were fighting for change, knowing that they couldn’t let the moment when they had the world’s attention pass.

With ”Us Kids” now available for all to see following its premiere at Sundance earlier this year — arranging with Alamo on Demand to be rented for free through Election Day — the director spoke about getting to tell a part of the story she couldn’t pursue in “Newtown” when the students that lived through a mass shooting were so young at the time, reconnecting with her younger self as she became close to the kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas to understand their fearlessness in taking on a cause that has stymied so many and how interconnected the issue is to the many others we currently face as a society.

Was it a different form of engagement for you when it was kids that were the center of this story rather than the adults?

Completely different. I don’t have kids myself, so I came with a blank slate and I didn’t have a lot of recent exposure to 17- and 18-year-olds in my daily life, but I’m very much in touch with my inner rebellious teenager and I was happy to re-meet her. That part of me that I started to remember in a whole new way and and now feel very one with them. There’s an enormous resilience [at that age] — it is a marvel to watch. To see Sam [Fuentes] get sick at that very public moment on the march, [where] we get to understand the fear from her much more internally as she gets up off of her knees and make a joke, I can’t even imagine the kind of resilience that takes and I watched that over and over again.

You can’t generalize, but getting a good glimpse into the psyche of Gen Z was a real curiosity and a privilege and an honor. I learned a lot. [There’s] a lot of selflessness, a lot of putting the memories of their friends who had been killed first and foremost. I don’t want to overly glorify Gen Z, and each generation has their attributes and their pitfalls, but I do feel that there is something really hopeful about the fact that this generation is way more conscious about thinking about the collective and the greater good. That’s evident in the moment we’re sitting in right now as we approach this election. They care about each other and not just each other in the sense of the people they know in their inner circle. They care about the world at large and one of the upsides of the internet age they grew up in is that they make friends in very different places and learn of experiences that are way outside of their own.

Samantha really emerges as a core of the story. How did you gravitate towards her as a subject?

Samantha is, in some ways, the heart of the movie because she witnessed her friend die in front of her. For many people who go through anything like this — survivor guilt and the throes of PTSD — there’s unbelievable courage to go out and try to make sense of those deaths that she witnessed around her and turn it into something productive for the world. I have such respect for that and Sam and I just clicked from really early on. I could feel that this was also a cathartic process [for her] of being able to trust someone with her voice on her terms, not in the way a three-minute news story would be constructed. That was helpful to her process, and from a filmmaking perspective, what draws me to stories, which is why I’m thinking a lot more about narrative work as well these days, is deeply psychological. It was films like “Ordinary People” that drew me to exploring that terrain psychologically of Sam — the bonding that happens with her slain friend’s brother Alex and [how] Sam really grew and blossomed and continues to. She works side-by-side with me now on the film’s trajectory and what we’re trying to do to affect good change in the world, so Sam and I are tight. We really appreciate and learn a lot from each other.

From what I’ve heard, you scheduled the filming of this in such a way where you acted as a fly on the wall for the March for Our Lives tour and got the in-depth interviews later. Was it interesting to get to know your subjects that way?

In the beginning, several of them, particularly Emma and David, were besieged by media and became household names as you might remember. That wasn’t invited. They simply went out days after a shooting along with a lot of other kids in that town and beyond to avenge the deaths of their friends to make sure their friends didn’t die in vain and to do something about an issue that they felt was ridiculously preventable in many ways. So when I went with them after that march on the road to change, we didn’t know each other well at all. During that two-month period, I really hung back a lot. There was a lot of press all the time and they were exhausted. I was interested in looking at the burnout and the polarization of one hand David getting a lot of hate and death threats, but on the other hand, they were often sometimes fetishized by the liberal community.

I was watching all of this and wondering underneath it all, what was I doing at 17 and 18? These were just kids being thrust into waters that I couldn’t ever imagine, so it was a matter of patience, of hanging in and building trust, which is what I do with most of my films and something that as a human being that I get a lot of satisfaction out of. At the end of that long haul [once] they had a breath or two, we started to get to know each other better and at that point, I really felt it was important to have a process that was collaborative, where I would show them things because I’m not their age. I would say to them, “What does this feel like to you?” I always do explore with subjects, “What do you think? Where do you think we should go?” And not have so much an imposed agenda on those conversations. I think it was also a way for them to process [their experience] — not only the two months, but the six months of when the trauma really started to hit, like “My God, this happened.” My experience having worked on “Newtown,” well, anyone who’s experienced death and grief, which is pretty much all of us, is that it takes a while to process that, so I was aware of that and aware of their fatigue and just very gently and at the pace that felt right started to get to know them better. Since the completion of the film and its premiere at Sundance, now I really feel like we’re friends.

When you’re seeing all the other media coverage that’s out there, did it influence what you wanted to do with this?

[It was actually] their experience of mainstream media [that I wanted to capture]. As a documentarian, you don’t want to be sanctimonious. You do have a camera yourself. There are moments you want to capture, but I was curious about the impact that the onslaught of the media was having on them. You do see in the film Emma becoming “famous” and the burden of that. She says at one point, “I don’t want that,” and it’s genuine. This was not a comfortable terrain for her, so when you see another one of the kids get to Texas and somebody says, “You’re being used,” and they’re like, “No, we’re actually deeply traumatized and we have to do something because our friends were killed and we feel an obligation” – that’s very genuine.
Every documentarian wants to be able to dig deeper. You have the luxury of 90 minutes and I knew these kids were being rendered in a way that wasn’t always [fully dimensional]. As Emma even deals with in the film, it’s like they were put into those neat little news boxes of being those spokespeople in the early days and it was easier for their pundits to call them pawns. I watched those kids write their own speeches. I watched how good they are with words. Nobody ever wrote anything that didn’t come from their own hand or their own mouth, so that was something I really wanted [to show], which is that these are real kids, but it is extraordinary to watch 37 days after their friends were killed, that they pulled off one of the largest youth protests since the Vietnam war. They did that through the savvy knowledge of social media and their own not taking no for an answer and calling BS as Emma said so aptly.

You mentioned earlier working with Sam on the release of the film – what’s it like working alongside the March for Our Lives activists now and getting this film out into the world after Sundance?

For all of us, every person living on the planet, let alone this country and then filmmakers within that bubble, it’s been headspinning since Sundance. Nobody ever envisioned 2020 to be this. Everything takes on a new context since January, but for me the film is more relevant because gun violence is a chronic public health epidemic, and COVID, for a while, we thought was an acute one that’s becoming chronic, but I think about a lot because there are a lot of similarities for me about selfishness and about what you do to take on a public health epidemic. Then [with] the Black Lives Matter [movement], I can say the kids were very much aware early on of [their own movement] being inclusive – early on, [they said], “This isn’t about us [the survivors of mass shootings]. We have to shine a light on black and brown communities which take on such a disproportionate amount of gun violence,” and [activists] like Bria Smith and Alex King in Milwaukee and Chicago that I’m traveling with now virtually, they’re all part of a campaign that we’re releasing the film in the coming days to affect change in this country and have it be a dialogue for youth to be able to share. I do feel it represents a lot of their voices and I don’t think there’s a lot of things like that out there, and that’s a very significant thing at this moment is how the youth are going to feel about making demands about whoever it is to make this country a better place in the coming years.

“Us Kids” will open virtually on October 30th through Alamo on Demand.

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