At this year’s Sundance Film Festival four documentaries spotlight adolescents who inspire change while also holding a mirror up to a society that provoked their pain and path to resistance.
In Kim Snyder’s “Us Kids” the director focuses her lens on a handful of teenagers who survived the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. which claimed 17 lives. The docu examines the lasting trauma of gun violence while also chronicling determined young survivors who speak out against the national gun-violence epidemic and develop the March For Our Lives movement.
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Snyder, who directed the 2016 doc “Newtown” about Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, as well as the 2018 nonfiction short “Notes from Dunblane: Lesson from a School Shooting,” had no intention of making another film about gun violence.
“I was very weirdly and karmically in Florida the week of the (Parkland) shooting,” recalls Snyder. “Within days I was on the steps of the Capitol in Tallahassee and the kids arrived in busloads to start demanding change. Before I witnessed that I thought that I was definitely done with the gun space, but we got this incredible footage and I just thought, ‘OK. Maybe I’m supposed to be doing something with this.’”
“Us Kids” doesn’t concentrate on the actual massacre, but instead focuses on Samantha Fuentes, who was shot during the attack, and Alex Dworet, whose brother was killed in Parkland. Interviews and access to the movement’s most recognizable faces including Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and Cameron Kasky are also part of the film. Snyder chronicles the 2018 March for Our Lives student-led demonstration as well as the March For Our Lives: Road to Change 50-city bus tour that followed.
The director spent close three months on a bus with Parkland students as they made their way across the country to rally young voters and campaign to end gun violence.
“I would describe the tour as herculean,” says Snyder. “These kids were receiving death threats; they were still going through a lot of trauma that hadn’t been processed and they were exhausted, so there was a lot percolating.”
The tour resulted in a number of new state gun safety laws as well as an increase in youth voter turnout in tour cities.
Sundance senior programmer David Courier screened four docus about the Parkland tragedy including “Us Kids.” Snyder’s film stuck out he says for various reasons including one scene involving David Hogg.
“During the bus tour there are protests against (the Parkland students) involving gun rights activists and you watch these 17 and 18 year old kids literally come of age on the screen,” Courier says. “In one scene David is confronted by very right-wing gun activists and (Snyder’s camera) is close enough on (Hogg’s) face to see the wheels turning in his brain. You see him realize that, ‘Man, if I dismiss these people because I don’t agree with their politics they have every right to dismiss me. And you actually see a change happen in him and he engages with them in a way that is kind of shocking to the protesters because he is respectful and he ends up demanding their respect back. It’s just extraordinary to watch.”
Courier was also taken with another political coming of age docu called “Boys State.” Directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, the film documents the 2018 gathering of a thousand 17-year-old males from Texas tasked with building a representative government from the ground up in one week’s time.
“Talk about putting the mirror up to the polarized country that is the United States right now,” Courier says of the doc. “These kids use devious tactics and fake news and stuff that generations before them would never have brought up because it wasn’t in the zeitgeist. It’s just outrageous.”
McBaine and Moss, who was at Sundance six years ago with “The Overnighters,” became intrigued by the yearly competition when they read a Washington Post article about the event in 2017.
“We’ve already had one cataclysmic fracture in our union in the last century and I think the question we ask now is, are we headed towards another fracture of the union?” asks Moss. “That’s what intrigued me and was a kind of catalyst (into the film).”
Adds McBaine: “We wanted to see how these boys were experiencing the divisions of our country and how they would deal with different political points of view. How would those differences be reconciled or further fractured?”
To find out, the directing duo followed four teenagers during the June event. The result was both inspiring and at times discouraging.
“Some of these (kids) have a wisdom that’s extraordinary,” says Moss. “You see a moral compass, strength and courage in these young people that we need right now.”
But both helmers concede that they also captured teens playing out plenty of low down, dirty tricks.
James D. Stern and Fernando Villena’s “Giving Voice” is also a film structured around a competition. The docu is about the annual August Wilson Monologue Competition in which thousands of students perform a monologue of the playwright’s in hopes of a chance to perform at the August Wilson Theater on Broadway.
“Our purpose throughout the making of the film was to not only show the excitement and nervous thrills of a theatrical competition but to intersect that with Wilson and show why he was such a singular and vital artist,” explains Stern. “Fernando and I felt that if we could achieve this, we would ultimately show why Wilson transcends the periods he was writing about and connects with students and what they are going through in their lives today.”
Stern and Villena follow six students from various backgrounds and different parts of the country. In the process of studying Wilson’s words, each contestant begins to understand their own voice.
“Following the students is, of course, the spine of the film and seeing the dawning recognition that what they are experiencing first hand in their lives makes up the subtext of Wilson’s plays and provides the pathos for the film,” says Stern. “As one student says, ‘If this play was written a while ago and this is still happening, we need to do something about it.’”
“August Wilson’s words are not just hitting the kids in the head and coming out of their mouths,” says Courier. “His words are hitting them in the heart. You witness that in the movie, which ends up hitting you in the heart. It’s an emotional journey for sure and emotions spur activism.”
Jerry Rothwell’s “The Reason I Jump” also follows inspirational young people. Based on the best-selling book by Naoki Higashida, “The Reason I Jump” blends Higashida’s revelatory insights into autism with five intimate portraits of nonspeaking autistic youth.
“Higashida’s descriptions of a world without speech provoke us to think differently about autism,” says Rothwell. “For most of history, nonspeaking autistic people have been considered less than human: ostracized within communities, banished to institutions, even in some ages and places, killed en masse. Stigma is still a feature of most autistic people’s lives.”
With his doc, Rothwell hopes to use cinema to evoke intense sensory worlds that will help eliminate stigma and radically change the way nonspeaking autistic people are seen.
Rothwell explains that, “While no film can replicate human experience, my hope is that (the movie) can encourage an audience into thinking about autism from the inside, recognizing other ways of sensing the world, both beautiful and disorientating.”
Courier was reduced to tears after seeing a rough cut of the docu.
“What’s so powerful about “The Reason I Jump,” “Us Kids,” “Boys State” and “Giving Voice” is that they are all films about kids out there finding their voice and in the process inspiring us – the audience,” Courier says.