'After Parkland' Comes to Traverse City Film Festival, Doc on High School Shooting Survivors: 'This Situation Threw All of Us into Adulthood'
Survivor Sam Zeif on taking on the gun lobby: 'There's a lot of reasons we were the victims to start some type of wave'
Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who dared take on America's gun lobby after the mass shooting at their school last year have been attacked by right wing opponents angered by the audacity of their activism. But the survivors found a much more supportive response at Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival, where the documentary After Parkland played on Friday.
The film directed by Jake Lefferman and Emily Taguchi explores how MSD students and parents of some of the kids killed in the shooting have tried to cope with their trauma and grief, and to build an effective gun control movement.
Lefferman and Taguchi appeared on stage at the State Theatre in Traverse City for a Q&A following Friday's screening. After Parkland screens again later today at an even more resonant location - Central High School. The directors were producers for ABC News who were dispatched to Parkland, Florida immediately after the shooting on February 14, 2018.
"[We] went down there on assignment for ABC, but as soon as we sat down with the students and these families we saw that this was a conversation that wasn't going away and that there was definitely a lot of reason to stay there and pursue something that was a long form opportunity," Lefferman explained to Nonfictionfilm.com during an interview at the Tribeca Film Festival, where After Parkland premiered. "There wasn't an exact moment where we decided we needed to make a documentary. We just stayed there and the more we saw moments away from the headlines, moments away from the barrage of cameras. we saw that this was a unique group and we wanted to stay and follow their stories."
Among the young survivors who opened up their lives to the filmmakers were Sam Zeif, David Hogg, Dillon McCooty and Victoria Gonzalez. Gonzalez dated Joaquin Oliver, one of the students killed at MSD; McCooty and Zeif were friends of the charismatic young man.
"There really was nobody like him," Zeif told me at Tribeca. "I always seize the opportunity to share his memory and keep his memory alive."
Gonzalez expressed a similar sentiment. "I look at [the film] as an opportunity to keep his memory alive, to make sure people know who he is and what kind of person he was. And I also look at it as an opportunity to inspire others to... push through whatever they're going through because everyone has something they're dealing with, but you can always keep going. As hard as my story is to tell I hope that it does something for other people."
The massacre thrust Gonzalez, Zeif and Hogg and other MSD students into the national spotlight. The film shows how they dealt with the intense public attention with remarkable poise.
"I think that this situation threw all of us into adulthood when we didn't realize it was happening," Gonzalez told me. "I think I've always been a little more mature than my age, honestly, so I've had that mind set. But definitely after this I was just like forced to think that way."
Many students immediately became leaders in the movement to press politicians in Florida and at the national level to enact gun control reforms.
"I think there's a lot of reasons we were the victims to start some type of wave," Zeif observed. "For one, Columbine was 20 years ago and that was a completely different time than today... It caught national attention but it didn't start a national movement because it wasn't able to move without social media like it is today. For Sandy Hook 12 years later, another tragedy, but still [involving] just children and unable to unify successfully. For us, it's a pretty big school - 3,200 kids. If you're in a movie theater like in Aurora, that's random people who don't really know each other and they were there for that one time... But this is 3,200 people who every single day come into the exact same place who've all experienced the same thing and are feeling the same feeling, and that's really powerful."
Zeif was among the survivors of mass shootings who were invited to the White House for a televised get together with President Trump in the days after the tragedy in Parkland. The president spoke nice words about "solving this" problem, but Zeif hasn't been impressed by the follow through.
"I was in the White House well over a year ago when the president said he was going to do something about it and fix this," he told me, "and he hasn't done shit. At all."
His dismay over the failure to take sensible action is palpable.
"There's a lot that needs to be done but a lot of it is just common sense. If our policy makers weren't so run by money they would start thinking with their brains instead of their bank accounts," Zeif says. "The police were called to the shooter's house 35 times before the incident. His social media had been flagged. He'd been suspended from school multiple times, kicked out of school and given no assistance whatever. There was a lot of neglect in a lot of situations. Our school security was neglectful. Our one school officer was neglectful. The only person on campus who really had a single chance stood 20 feet away and listened. They just passed another bill [in Florida] for arming teachers. It just doesn't make any sense to me. Police officers - officers of the law, people who live their lives to protect us - have accidentally pulled their weapon and used it and know that they've made terrible mistakes that they can't [take] back and they're trained to read situations professionally. These are just teachers."
Strong opinions like those have earned condemnation of the student activists by ardent gun fans. Some right wing conspiracy theorists went so far as to claim Hogg and others were not actual shooting survivors but "crisis actors" hired to promote gun control.
"If people want to make claims at us or call us crisis actors or whatever, that's cool for them. That's their ignorance. People send hate and it really doesn't affect me," Zeif insisted. "Your ignorance is not my issue right now. Hopefully at a point that won't matter anymore and we'll have the numbers [of gun control supporters] to where you’re insignificant in the equation."
He added, "[Recently] Trump spoke at the NRA and said, 'Don't worry, no one's going to take your guns.' Yes, we are, no matter what he says. He's making promises that he really thinks he can keep, I guess, but we are taking their guns. Not all of them, but there's people that shouldn't have certain weapons. Period. So our goal is to make sure that they don't."
Gonzalez says she tries to keep the focus on a human level.
"I try to remind people of the personal side of it. That it's not all about the politics, of course," she commented. "There needs to be things put in place to prevent [shootings]. But you need to first understand what these people are going through in order to take correct action... I keep talking about empathy. It's so important to step into someone else's shoes and get a feel for it, or as much as you can before you want to say something about it."
That, ultimately, is the larger point of After Parkland, Taguchi told me.
"What we hope is that we're able to show some of the very, very long ripple effects and what's behind the headlines when these events take place," Taguchi said. "And just how long of a process and how deep and personal of a process it is."
"We hope the film gives someone insight into what the days and weeks and months are like for someone who goes through trauma," added Lefferman. "And we hope it helps ignite conversation, wherever you are on the political spectrum. It's a conversation that needs to continue."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.