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SXSW Review: 'Newtown' Is 'Dear Zachary' Times Twenty-Six

By Dustin Rowles | Film | March 14, 2016 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | March 14, 2016 |

During one of the many hearings following the shooting deaths of 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, the doctor on call at the Newtown, Connecticut hospital gave perhaps the most chilling account of what happened on the morning of December 14, 2012. He said that only a couple of the six-year-old first graders were even sent to the hospital that day, explaining that he unfortunately could not save them. The coroner received the other victims, and as the doctor explained, each were shot between three and eleven times by an assault weapon with ammunition that exploded inside their bodies. As you can imagine, he said, little bodies cannot survive those kinds of wounds.

Twenty six-year-old children shot between three and eleven times apiece by large bullets that exploded inside of their little bodies.

The tragedy that occurred on that day was unfathomable. It was the largest mass shooting of school children in U.S. history, and an event like that is not only going to shake the parents of the victims, but the entire community, especially one as small and close-knit as Newtown, CT; a town to where many of its residents moved in order to take advantage of the safety of its school system.

What the documentary Newtown seeks to do, to the extent that a film can, is to let us in on the grieving process of the town, to make us understand a fraction of the devastation that the parents who lost first graders are feeling, and hopefully to motivate us to do something about it. It’s an immensely difficult, but illuminating, documentary to watch. If one account doesn’t hit you in the emotional solar plexus, another will. The moment that hurt me the deepest was the account of the police officer on the scene who was able, somehow, to find some comfort in the fact that, among the strewn bodies of children, he saw the body of a teacher with her arm around the dead body of a child. After a horrific and unimaginable incident like this, I can only imagine what small moment of beauty in a sea of horror that survivors must cling to in order to move forward.

The documentary itself is respectful, brave, and powerful. It never dwells on the grisly crime scene — in fact, the police officer explained that the graphic details were something no one should ever have to hear described — it never mentions the shooter’s name, and it never for a moment feels exploitative. It was not produced, either, to help the survivors find closure — one father who lost a son even explained that he doesn’t want closure, understanding that this loss was something he’d feel for the rest of his life. The people who participated in this documentary can only be described as heroic, pulling out their broken hearts once again to help us comprehend their grief and devastation.

It’s not agitprop, either. It’s not partisan. It doesn’t even actively advocate for gun control so much as it makes us feel a small sense of the loss of these people and lets us draw the only conclusion any sensible person could draw from the tragedy: That it was senseless and avoidable in any country with common-sense gun legislation. As one parent told a Senate subcommittee that essentially ignored his testimony and voted against additional background checks, anyway: The Constitution may guarantees us the right to bear arms, but the Declaration of Independence also guarantees us the right to the pursuit of life, and our right to life should take priority over the right to own an automatic weapon capable of shooting 20 first graders between three and eleven times with bullets that explode inside their little bodies.

Unfortunately, no federal reforms have come out of the massacre yet, because we simply do not elect the right people. However, the parents of those victims, and the survivors in that community can take some solace in the fact that the Sandy Hook shooting started a conversation about gun violence that wasn’t taking place before 12/14/12. Sadly, it’s a conversation we’re having all too frequently now, and so far, it’s been a futile one. All we can do is vote for officials with enough common decency to ban the ownership of military-style weapons by civilians and hope that enough people will eventually join us to make a difference. Hopefully, this documentary will be seen by enough people to help push the needle.

‘Newtown’ screened as part of the SXSW festival. It’s a difficult film to watch, but that makes it all the more important to do so: Because your sadness and anger may prompt you into action. For screenings in your area, bookmark the Newtown Film website.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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