The Bizarre World of US Gun Violence, Seen Through Documentaries

In the United States, frequent mass shootings have led to continual debate and attempts at policy change on gun control. One such event has been particularly powerful for spurring activism: the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. With 17 students killed, it surpassed Columbine as the deadliest high school shooting in US history. But the tragedy has affected change not because of that body count, but because of the tenacity of many of the surviving students. Kim A. Snyder’s new documentary Us Kids follows their journey, beginning mere weeks after the tragedy that changed them all.

The film follows the most public faces of the Parkland activist movement, some of whom gained high media profiles almost overnight, such as X González and David Hogg. But most of its runtime is focused on Samantha Fuentes. Through following her, Snyder observes how the tragedy has psychologically (and in her case, also physically) affected the students. The story features the group during the massive protests they led and speeches they made on their nationwide tour during the 2018 midterm elections. There are some tense moments, like when they explain the death threats they’ve received, or when Cameron Kasky bravely debates a group of gun-toting men protesting his mere presence in their town.

This is not the first documentary about gun violence. The controversies over US gun culture are old, and there are plenty of other titles on the subject. It may surprise people in the states that someone from the outside would be invested in these narratives, but here I am. All my life, gun violence has been something foreign. Where I live in Chile, you hear about it on TV in news about robberies and drug trafficking, or when the latest mass shooting occurs in the United States. Chile’s rate of firearm-related death is slightly higher than Austria’s and a bit lower than Croatia’s. When you see or hear a gun, it’s usually in the hands of the police or military — more recently, often as a method of repression and fear in reaction to ongoing protest. For me, guns have always belonged to criminals or oppressors. One of the first steps in my cinephile journey was checking out the brass and outlandish documentaries of Michael Moore. There was something refreshing in seeing someone so scathing and playful about politics and culture. His Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine was a revelation, a film I could point at and say, “Look, here’s what’s wrong with them.” It gave me peace, in a weird way. 

But in the years since, I’ve seen things around me gradually shift. People around me have considered buying a gun. Shooting galleries sprout up here and there. Presidential candidates have advocated for the completely free use of firearms as a solution for a (perceived, not actual) increase in crime. Now these films feel not like documents of the US’s present but a premonition of Chile’s future. Most alarming is how, though these shootings in the US have gone on for decades and a number of these movies have been released, not much has changed in law. The films have adopted increasingly obtuse ways to get their points across, from the religious point of view in The Armor of Light (2015) to the dubious ways Barbara Kopple gives voice to both sides of the issue in Gun Fight (2011). Yet nothing seems to have worked. 

As Us Kids follows it subjects on their unwanted journey toward public worldwide attention, we’re never allowed to forget that they are just children. Full of youthful hopes, dreams, bravery and some foolishness, they still sincerely believe they can change things. The film tries its hardest to make it feel like they have, pointing to a recent spike in youth voting and the ousting of select NRA-backed government officials. But even if that sense of triumph isn’t wholly earned (especially considering the recent surge in attacks on the Asian American community), the teens’ struggle still feels empowering. Us Kids is not about a mass shooting; it’s about a generation with a fresh set of convictions. My own country seems geared toward a more violent future. I hope we don’t have to go through what they did for us to do something about it.

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