New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music was host to an emotionally wrenching screening this week of Newtown, the documentary about the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The film was included in the lineup of BAMcinemaFest, an independent film festival, and was followed by a thoughtful town hall discussion with subjects from the movie, moderated by ABC News’ Deborah Roberts.
Roberts was joined by Newtown director Kim A. Snyder; the film’s producer Maria Cuomo Cole; Newtown emergency room doctor William Berg, who has lobbied for gun violence to be researched and studied by the American Medical Association; Sandy Hook school teacher Abbey Clements; and parents of three children who were killed in the massacre: Nicole Hockley (mother of Dylan, 6), Jackie and Mark Barden (parents of Daniel, 7) and David Wheeler (father of Ben, 6).
Newtown, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, will be released theatrically in October followed by a television airing on PBS. But Snyder and the documentary’s participants also intend to take the film around the country in the upcoming months, with town hall events and Q&As to accompany the screenings. Last week, they screened the film at the White House — a screening President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden could not be present at because they were in Orlando, Florida, visiting with victims’ families following the June 12 Pulse nightclub shooting. That mass shooting, which left 49 people dead, weighed heavily on the minds of the Newtown parents.
“Every shooting is like a punch in the gut for us,” Hockley said, “but I’ve got to admit that the mass shootings hit that much harder. Because we have a difference sense of the wait to find out — and it takes [me] right back to the firehouse.” Just one block away from Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Newtown firehouse was where parents waited for updates after the shooting. When Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy informed the assembled that 20 children had been killed, the room, according to one heartbreaking testimonial in the documentary, erupted with pain.
“I can’t speak for [the families in Orlando],” Hockley continued. “But I just know about the total lack of control and trust that is experienced, because everything is stripped away. I was in shock for the first six months, even longer, not having a clue what was going on day to day. I mean, still, I think how surreal is this that we’re sitting in a movie theater having just watched a film about our families and our children, who are no longer here. There’s nothing recognizable about life anymore. And those [Orlando] families are at the beginning of an incredible long journey. Trying to find a way to find beauty again or hope again, that’s really hard.”
Hockley is a founding member of Sandy Hook Promise, a national non-profit organization which raises awareness of ways in which community violence can be prevented. In the last year, the organization has educated 865,000 Americans. “What we do is teach people, children and adults, totally for free, how to recognize the signs of someone who is at risk of hurting themselves or someone else, and then how to intervene to get that person help. A little over a month ago, we presented in Louisiana, to the sheriffs’ association in Baton Rouge. It was a room full of sheriffs and police enforcement. It was awesome, because they started off leaning back, thinking, ‘Oh, here we go again,’ but by the end they were totally engaged and said, ‘Come help us, this can work here.'”
Dr. Berg, representing another angle of the advocacy spectrum, spoke about a silver lining that has recently emerged from the spate of recent shootings. “This has actually been a very good week for the medial profession,” he said. “Finally the American Medical Association came out and said that gun violence is a public heath issue. We’ve already made changes for tobacco use, drunk driving, safe sex practices, Ebola, and a million other things. But we have refused as a society to call gun violence a public health issue. Once you define it that way, change can accelerate. So I’m finally going to pay my dues to the AMA again this week.”
Newtown, significantly, gives context to the timeline of the day that 20-year-old Adam Lanza murdered 27 people — but the movie never shows his photograph or utters his name. “That was done with tremendous intention,” said producer Cuomo Cole.
Even still, Mark Barden described the terrible difficulty of seeing the documentary. “In the process of watching this film, I can barely talk to you,” he said. “Seeing those images of my little Daniel, it just — it feels like Daniel should be home right now. In a real way, part of us died that day with Daniel. But I think it’s important [to watch the film] as well, especially after 49 people were shot to death in a nightclub, being where they were supposed to be. It just keeps happening. There is never ending damage that’s caused by this. And thoughts and prayers and moments of silence are not enough.”
David Wheeler, likewise, spoke about the difficult dialogue that has to occur in the aftermath of such events. “These conversations are easy to have with the people who believe what you believe,” he said. “They’re really hard to have with the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving, but the conversation has to happen.”
And towards the close of the town hall, Wheeler quoted Martin Luther King when he said, “I choose to believe, in the words from someone far smarter than me, that the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I will hang on to the shreds of hope I can find, so I can function.”
To watch a clip from Newtown, featuring Wheeler and a volunteer EMT worker who cared for his son, click below.