Hot Docs 2020 Review: A Threat of Guns in Schools Leads to Other Triggers in Todd Chandler’s Brilliant “Bulletproof”

In its opening moments, “Bulletproof” waits a beat before before letting you know that you’re watching a lockdown drill at Woodridge Middle School as the halls are silent and faculty can be seen inside barricading their classrooms as a shooter roams around. When the middle-aged staffer knocks at the door, a fake gun in hand, you know you can breath a little easier, but still director Todd Chandler doesn’t let you off the hook for the hour-and-20 minutes that follow.

With cinematographer Emily Topper crafting coolly composed images shot at a remove as if filming from a rifle scope, “Bulletproof” would seem to take its cues from the principal of Texas City High, who is kept up at night by his belief that despite the $44,000 worth of AR-15s he’s stockpiled in a safe for protection, “the wolf is in the henhouse,” should a shooter actually show up at his school, assuming it’ll be from his own student body. Although Texas City High hasn’t suffered an attack just yet, the film suggests the wolf may have already arrived in sheep’s clothing when the fear that has led schools to take such extreme measures as implementing surveillance cameras with identifying technology and elaborate lockdown drills has already had a chilling effect on the first generation of students where it feels like an ever-present threat.

“Bulletproof” has a deceptively simple yet shrewd structure where one idea leads to the next, no matter what physical place that is, leaving Texas City for Las Vegas where there is an entire convention dedicated to school security where there’s an entire industry built to profit from paranoia has sprung up, with goods such as lockdown shades and bulletproof whiteboards being hawked, and then venturing to East Palo Alto where a young woman planning to go into the tech industry delayed plans for getting a master’s degree in order to start making casual Kevlar hoodies, a business she stumbled upon after her neighbor was shot. Chandler and co-editor Shannon Kennedy brilliantly hold back details for both narrative intrigue and a blurring of locations to convey how widespread this preparation is across America and meticulously parse them out to great effect, often taking something that sounds rational in one context and revealing in the next scene how it’s crazier than you’d think.

Chandler gets in all the right rooms to capture the current cultural climate, from the Texas City principal’s office where the AR-15 safe sits right behind him to a school board meeting in Pittsburgh where cops are advocating for a greater presence on campus, likely to drive up their hours on the clock. (The sly shots of both the camouflage-clad USMC and the color guard, with their fake plastic rifles, marching together within a scene depicting a homecoming parade suggest that the influence of violence has been with the schools long before shootings became such a sadly common occurrence.) Although eye-popping numbers are thrown around enough to ask at what cost this is coming to the eternally underfunded area of education, it is always a secondary question to what the price is for the teachers and students from high school to the first grade that Chandler observes taking it all in, shouldering a burden they shouldn’t have to bear. Whatever it is, it’s too much and in showing how specious gun control hasn’t only brought terror to schools, but introducing a new business to build upon it, “Bulletproof” proves invaluable.

“Bulletproof” will premiere virtually at Hot Docs, where it will be made available to Ontario audiences from May 28th through June 6th.

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