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The Aftermath of the Mass Shooting at Sandy Hook Is Addressed on PBS’ ‘Newtown’
April 3, 2017  | By David Hinckley

When Kim Snyder decided to make a documentary on the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., she didn’t want simply to plunge back into the darkness.

“You don’t want to retraumatize people,” says Snyder, whose documentary Newtown airs Monday (4/3) at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings) in the PBS Independent Lens series.

She felt the story had to be told. It was also a challenge.   

On the one hand, the deaths of 20 students and six educators at an elementary school on Dec. 14, 2012, made news around the world. It fell into a series of mass shootings that left Americans stunned and shaken.

On the other hand, Newtown itself was still raw when Snyder began work the following year. So the New York-based documentarian entered the community as gently as possible.

“I went to see Father Bob (left),” she says, referring to Robert Weiss, the St. Rose of Lima priest who was the first clergyman on the scene on Dec. 14, 2012, and subsequently became a community spokesman and liaison.

“He was still having some trauma himself,” says Snyder. “That gave me a perspective on his task. After that, little by little, I started to meet other people. I didn’t have a list. It was more a matter of someone I had met saying I know someone who would like to talk to you.

“I think for some people, it was cathartic. For others, it would not have been. I never pushed anyone. I never asked anyone more than once.”

She decided early on that she would not interview the youngest children at the school.

“I wouldn’t have felt it appropriate to interview children 8 or 9,” Snyder says. She did talk with some young teenagers, “but in the end, I mostly talked with adults.”

Much of that conversation concerns the aftermath of the shootings, with attention to ways the community came together.

“The strength many of these people showed is remarkable,” says Snyder.

Newtown doesn’t spend a lot of time on the details of the shooting.

“In a sense, you want to know what happened in the last minutes,” Snyder says. “But in another way, you really don’t.”

The documentary notes acts of courage and bravery. It does not note the name of the shooter, a deliberate omission Snyder says was “important to me.”

She devotes considerable time to the efforts of parents and others pushing for gun control legislation in the wake of the shootings.

While those efforts produced some results in Connecticut, they were largely unsuccessful elsewhere, including at the federal level where the powerful National Rifle Association has effectively opposed any sort of gun controls.

It has been widely suggested that if the massacre of 20 schoolchildren didn’t move Congress to impose any new restrictions, nothing will.

Snyder and the film acknowledge that view, and she says that despite the apparent dead ends, she is not entirely pessimistic.

“Part of the demoralization is that people hung everything on this one issue,” she says. “But we have to remember this wasn’t the only case. The American Medical Association has called gun violence a national health crisis.

“We’ve traveled the country showing this film in numerous communities. I’ve had audience members come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I’m a member of the NRA, and this speaks to people like me.’

“I think there can be middle ground.”

The real heart of Newtown, though, Snyder says, lies in the individual stories of people she interviews and profiles.

“The story is character-driven,” she says. “These are people who in many cases are still working through their loss, and it’s important not to sugarcoat what happened. I wanted to show just how devastated a community can be.

“I also wanted the film to be honest about the journey of trauma.

“This is the club no one wants to be part of. But one of my favorite moments is the comment that there will be a day when we remember the victims with smiles, not tears.”

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