Tuesday, June 8, 2021

LISTEN to award-winning filmmaker Kim Snyder talks about her powerful film US Kids | Impact Partners Film

LISTEN to the show featuring Kim Snyder


From Kim A. Snyder, director of the Peabody Award-winning documentary Newtown, comes an insightful, rousing coming-of-age story of a generation of youth leaders determined to take the reins and fight for justice at a most critical time in our nation's history. Sparked by the plague of gun violence ravaging their schools, Us Kids chronicles the March For Our Lives movement over the course of several years, following X Gonzalez, its co-founders, survivors and a group of teenage activists as they pull off the largest youth protest in American history and set out across the country and globally to build an inclusive and unprecedented youth movement that addresses gun violence prevention, racial justice, a growing public health crisis, and shocks a political system into change.

Watch The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon Interview: X González’s March for Our Lives Documentary Made Sundance Film Festival History - NBC.com

X González’s March for Our Lives Documentary Made Sundance Film Festival History #Sundance #USKids #Fallon #JimmyFallon #Kim Snyder


What is US KIDS about in your own words?

To me, the film is a coming-of-age story about what represents a generation. It's about a bunch of regular teenage kids who live their lives against the backdrop of this horrendous national issue of gun violence. The film begins with this tragedy, and we follow what happens to Samantha Fuentes in her school, in her town, and the group of kids who set out to do something about it.

For these kids, whose friends and classmates died, the tragedy was a catalyst. The story is born out of trauma and rage, which simmers throughout, and it serves as a window into this generation and movement that is so different than — yet also has so much in common with, the Vietnam era and the Civil Rights movement. These kids have to grow up so quickly and their willingness to give up everything to fight for those who were lost makes them able to build a remarkable and unprecedented movement that I believe is real and lasting.

This is obviously isn't your first foray into documentary on gun violence. You won the Peabody for your 2016 film Newtown. How did the experience of making US KIDS differ for you personally?

It's a very different kind of film, and it was by happenstance I landed in this situation, I was pursuing a different project in Florida at the time and ended up in Tallahassee the week that Parkland happened. After completing Newtown, I had the feeling that the U.S. hadn’t reckoned with the fact that there were hundreds of thousands of traumatized youth. There is a generation of kids who are terrified. I’ve heard it many times in many places from kids essentially saying: Why are the adults in this country not understanding how fucking scared we are everyday? So when I found myself on the steps of the capitol in Tallahassee and all these kids arrived by the busloads saying some version of this, I realized I had to start filming.

Us Kids is also a story I could never tell with Newtown, because with the tragedy in Newtown, CT, the victims were so young and we were telling the story of the parents and their enormous loss, as well as what a town looks like in the wake of tragedy. Us Kids is from the point of view of the kids themselves. It is about their rage and grief.

Grief plays out and looks so much different when you're a teenager. I think the kids you see in this film generally have a healthy reaction to rage in how they transformed it.

They did not want to just be crying. I remember at one point X Gonzalez said, "I don't want to have my dead friends in pictures around me. I want to do things. I want to act." I was totally taken by that sentiment. We need to honor the dead through action, as well as remembering. Historically, that's what kids did during the Vietnam War. They didn't just wring their hands. They got shit done. And these kids were clearly going to do the same.

How did you get started once you decided to make the film?

After Tallahassee I decided to visit Parkland. People knew about Newtown and had seen it, so there was proof that I had rendered something respectfully. As in Newtown, I had to overcome the contradictory nature of what I was doing. You have to have enormous patience and sensitivity while building the trust building to break through, because after the agony of gun violence, these towns and residents had also become traumatized by cameras and media in the tragedy’s aftermath — and there I was with a camera as well. You have to keep showing up. It was a series of one person leading to another person, and it was organic.

When did you connect with the March for Our Lives kids?

I actually didn't meet them until the summer, on the Road to Change bus tour, which made 50 stops in cities around the country. I spent two months on the road following their bus. It was grueling — you never knew where you were waking up — but in each town you’d see the incredible turnout, and my crew and I would be awestruck all over again as to how they pulled it off. The way they built this infrastructure for a movement was just tremendous.

The kids were exhausted at the end of every day, and in each city there would be local media all over them, so I wasn't going to ask to interview them then. My approach at that point was to follow them like a rock band, capturing them vérité style.

They didn't always feel they had control over their own narrative, so it took the whole summer of running around with them, being a fly on the wall, before I really started to dig deeper. They saw I hadn’t gone away and that I wasn't just another media person trying to get their story.

There were rules I put in place. If we requested something and the response was no, I would never ask again. I believe you have to earn trust with people who have been inundated and traumatized by the media. So we became a part of the tour, a constant presence just like the security team. We were just around, and we were very respectful of the fact that they were still in the midst of dealing with trauma. Also, I had an amazing crew, who were really wonderful with them.

What were some of the particular challenges you faced in filming and editing?

In terms of filming, we worked very hard to honor and capture what the kids themselves wanted to say about this incredible thing they were building, and represent the myriad of voices involved.

The two most recognizable people from the movement, X Gonzalez and David Hogg, didn’t want to be the faces of this activism, so they had an earnest mission to have the cameras turn outward. They recognized how their presence in particular communities coming from a privileged mostly white community might be interpreted. They understood how important it was for them to get the media to focus on everyday violence in these distinct cities that we were rolling through on the tour.

Mass shootings represent less than 2% of shootings. So as leaders of this March For Our Lives organization, they made some amazing rules: They recruited new team members from around the country, they wouldn't talk to local news alone, and they had to be with a local organizer or a kid of color when they would do press. Often, despite everything, the two seconds that made it to air would be X. They hated not having control over that. So we wanted to respect that and made sure this film reflected those values.

In editing, the biggest challenge was balancing the two elements - the movement’s rise, and the lasting trauma of gun violence on America’s youth. This film isn’t only the story of March for Our Lives. The through-line of trauma was indispensable to crafting something that was intimate and character-based. Samantha, who was shot with an AR15 in her class, became the heart and bedrock in that sense. Samantha's a rock star.

Something that is often missed in the coverage of school shootings are stories that center on the wounded survivors. Could you talk about that aspect in US KIDS, particularly with Sam?

I developed really wonderful relationships with each of the kids in different ways. I went to South Africa with David and X. But Samantha is a very special relationship, it’s absolutely collaborative and real. We're close and that trust is just everything. She's an old soul, she was before this happened, and I know in certain ways this trauma has made her stronger. We talk about that a lot.

She represents the idea that you don't have to be an activist with a capital A. She reminds me of me when I was a kid, I played guitar and skipped school. She has so much courage. She does not complain about how profound her PTSD is, and I have learned that it is so profound — you see it when she’s on stage giving those speeches. She’s an artist, not an activist.

One of the first times we talked about her emotional state, it was too much. I would observe her and begin to understand when it was too much and constantly learn. I had received some counseling in Newtown about how to interact with people dealing with that level of trauma, facing triggers every single day. You can't police it, and it actually would annoy her if you were too cautious with her.

Her story also was a conduit for us to get to know Nick, who was murdered next to her. It's through this lens, and Sam’s burgeoning friendship with Nick’s younger brother that we witnessed a whole different character journey and emotional arc.

What was one of your biggest takeaways about this generation after making this film?

What I really gleaned about this generation through these conversations was that they have an inevitable combination of necessary nihilism - that the world's going to be under water and anyone could be killed by guns at any time - and, at the same time, there is hope. I think it’s sort of the default nature of being 17. That juxtaposition was crucial. They're very pragmatic, practical, incredibly strategic, and resourceful in such impressive ways. I watched them work instead of party, bond with each other, study together, yet act silly when they needed to as well.

The film reveals various layers of guilt that these youth are dealing with. Can you elaborate on this aspect of what they are dealing with?

In the case of Sam, she asked “why wasn’t it me? Why did I get to be alive?” She looked up to her friend Nick, who was Olympic bound. He was extraordinary, and had just gotten a scholarship for swimming. The guilt manifested for her in a way that she concluded that life is precious and she had to live it and speak out.

When you’re dealing with trauma, however, that can potentially be unhealthy - she put pressure on herself to do more in a time when her body and mind needed healing. You physically see that manifest itself in her story when she throws up. She wants to put herself out there on Nick's behalf to honor him, also in part, because he would have for her. At the same time, she needed to reconcile and understand the manifestations of her PTSD.

There's also a specific guilt stemming from this tragedy resulting in a lot of attention and making these kids famous, though it’s not something they asked for. That alone is a whole different level of survivor’s guilt that is unique to these kids’ experience.

What is most incredible is how they responded to the guilt and the trauma by turning it into action. I didn’t want lionize that,or make them seem like superheroes in the film. Classically, however, in terms of myth and storytelling, it is what happened to them. Their friends were murdered and ripped away from them, so they felt they had to do something to honor and avenge the fallen. It's that simple. That is this story. What they did was absolutely heroic.

David Hogg suffered so much harassment from the far-Right and watching your portrayal of its impact was so devastating. There's a tragic irony to it all: here's this kid who is trying to reconcile the deaths of his friends by doing something positive, and then he becomes the subject of the very type of violent threats that took his friends.

David was in the media's eye more than anyone else. Over the year we filmed, he was on the receiving end of a lot of hate. Some people saw him as a media pawn, but David has the guts and the soul of a of a real revolutionary. He's got that heart and intellect, and he’s also incredibly gifted. X is, too. They are one of those people who's behind the scenes a lot - they are incredibly humble, in addition to being an amazing writer who pens a lot of the speeches for the organization.

All this pressure definitely took its toll, though. We ended up shooting a scene in the Everglades because David and X said that's a place where they felt safe. David can't hike anymore because he doesn’t feel comfortable going to public places. The danger is real - on the road there was security around the clock and it was absolutely necessary.

For David, particularly, there's this sense of burden, that it's all on his shoulders. He’s going to have to reckon with that at some point. There has to be a mantle to hand off.

Many of the kids also face a big question about whether they will ever be able to have the same kind of age appropriate lives that their peers do. 
Will they ever be able to be regular kids? They started this massive thing rote and in the midst of trauma. They had to give up their childhood innocence to do this, and it has been a big sacrifice. But I think they realize they couldn’t go back to being blissfully ignorant. And like anyone who has endured this kind of crisis, you either have to do something with it or suffer. Now they’re each navigating their own paths forward.

There are moments of respite in the film. What was it like to capture joy in the midst of tragedy?

Like in Stand By Me, there's never a time in life where you're more loyal and connected to your friends than at that age, and that's part of what motivates them to do what they do for the friends who didn't make it. Bonding and being together was, I think, the antidote for them. There were so many moments of the kids being themselves and debating about something silly like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and how to make them. Those lighter moments were as fiery and as much proof of their debate skills as the serious gun reform discussions. It’s the shit like that that makes you a kid. I wanted to make sure that was clearly represented in the film.

Another trait about these kids that I find remarkable is their patience and openness. We keep hearing about how polarized the nation is — and it is, but they continually show that civil discourse is possible. It's possible to talk to people with very different points of view and find something in common. I think perhaps it's also related to them being teenagers. They're just more open.

The bus trip started as a group from Stoneman Douglas High School and then the students began collecting other youth activists as they went around the country on tour. For me, it kind of harkened back to Freedom Summer 64, where buses of young people were taken around to the South to register black voters.

The Road For Change trip was almost this Kerouacian journey. They began the tour as kids who were admittedly living in a privileged suburban Florida bubble, the Parkland area. X told me they had never been to more than two or three states. Actually, none of them had traveled much. In the wake of the tragedy, they leave their bubble to fight for change. Generally, with Gen Z, I believe there is a bigger sensitivity to inclusion than with prior generations. They were mindful to check their relative economic privilege.

When they rolled through these towns, through places very different than theirs, they had a lot of really hard, genuine conversations about race and about privilege with the people they met. The commonality they all cared deeply about, however, was gun violence. They started in Chicago, where they met up with Alex King, a kid with the group Peace Warriors. They met Bria Smith in Milwaukee who grew up with inner-city violence. She was such a brilliant speaker that they convinced her to join up. They went all over the country and experienced many points of view, including facing very pro-Second Amendment, hardcore people.

Including Bria's journey in the film was as crucial to this story as it was to the organization to have her on the team. When they visited the south particularly, her speeches were very powerful. She gave an amazing speech in front of the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, VA where she invoked the civil rights movement. It took all these kids from different places to create this movement. It became so much more than where it began. I think that there is a beautiful analogy to those times ... they were at an age where they were able to meet people from vastly different backgrounds and not be set in their own socioeconomic worldview. It’s something that will inform them as they go on in life.

There were more mass shootings in 2019 than there were days in the year. And though the students of the March for Our Lives had real impact, the shootings keep happening. Your film is hopeful, as are the kids. What do you think about the future of this movement?

I've always been an optimist, but I think we’re at a moment where things hang in the balance. Federal legislation, which passed in the house, is being held up at this very moment by Mitch McConnell and hasn't seen the Senate floor. I wholeheartedly believe that things can change like what has been accomplished with the Civil Rights movement and later for gay rights. I believe in what Martin Luther King said about the long arc of history - it goes backwards and it goes forwards. Stonewall was a hugely important moment, but look at how many years it took to get to same-sex marriage. And now, under the current administration, that could be taken away also.

Over 90 percent of Americans believe in background checks. We don't have many issues today that 90 percent of people agree on. So what's my hope? The NRA is showing cracks, thanks to March for Our Lives. Gun safety laws are being enacted, state-by-state. The kids are constantly saying this is not a red or blue issue, and I have optimism in watching them talk to conservative young kids, that this resistance to gun control will die out. It will just take time.

I have hope because there are currently over 300 chapters of March for Our Lives now. I have complete optimism that several of these kids will run for office. I have hope in seeing the little ones, the 10-year-olds now who are not looking at actors or musicians as their idols, they're looking at X or Greta Thunberg and saying “I want to be like that.” It is cool to be an activist. Now it's cool to pre-register to vote. There are a lot of kids today who are realizing the power they have when they are involved. I’ve seen an increase in activism and they proved it with the youth vote in the midterms - you see the proof in the film. I believe they're going to do the same thing for 2020, and they are going to make guns and climate change their issues. This is about survival for them.

Do you have political hopes for this film?

Yes, I do. This film is meant to inspire and mobilize. It's important to say that we made a very deliberate choice to have no adult main characters. You hardly see adults talking. We wanted to make this the voice of youth - it's their story, not mine. I hope it will raise awareness moving into the summer for pre-registration and the 2020 electoral cycle, without being preachy. Also, we want to work in tandem with all the folks in the gun violence prevention space. These kids don’t want pity or guilt. They don't want us to cry. They just want us to get up and work with them and stand beside them in this fight.

Bios: Filmmakers

Kim A. Snyder - Director / Producer

Kim A. Snyder’s most recent feature documentary, Us Kids premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance competition. Prior, she directed the Peabody award-winning documentary Newtown, which premiered in the US Competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Newtown screened at premiere festivals worldwide and was theatrically released followed by a national broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens and Netflix. Her most recent short, Lessons from a School Shooting: Notes from Dunblane, premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and was awarded Best Documentary Short followed by the DocDispatch Award at the 2018 Sheffield DocFest and a Grierson Award nomination. Lessons… is a Netflix Original and is streaming in 196 countries. Snyder’s prior works include the feature documentary, Welcome to Shelbyville, nationally broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens in 2011, and over a dozen short documentaries. Kim’s award-winning directorial debut feature documentary, I Remember Me was theatrically distributed by Zeitgeist Films. In 1994, she associate-produced the Academy Award-winning short film Trevor. Kim graduated with a Masters in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and resides in New York City.

Maria Cuomo Cole - Producer

Maria Cuomo Cole is the Peabody award-winning producer of the feature documentary, Newtown, which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. She then partnered
with Kim Snyder on Lessons from a School Shooting: Notes from Dunblane. Lessons premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and was subsequently nominated for a Grierson award. In her career, she has tackled relevant subjects such as gun violence, homelessness, veterans’ PTSD, domestic violence and sexual assault. She executive produced The Hunting Ground, directed by Kirby Dick. This Emmy and Peabody award winning film has been lauded as a powerful investigation into the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses. Ms. Cuomo Cole worked with the same film team, executive producing the 2014 Oscar® nominated documentary, The Invisible War. This groundbreaking documentary explored the epidemic of rape and sexual violence in the U.S. military, which served as a catalyst for federal legislation and enacted federal policy reforms.

Lori Cheatle - Producer

Lori Cheatle is a producer of over 25 award-winning films and the founder of Hard Working Movies, a director-driven production company with an appetite for bold, high-profile narratives. Titles include MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A., about the musician M.I.A., directed by Steve Loveridge, which won a Special Jury award at Sundance 2018, the IDA Award for Best Music Documentary, and a Special Commendation at the Grierson Awards. 

 I Am Another You by Nanfu Wang, which won two jury awards at SXSW and is released by FilmRise and Independent Lens; Kiki (IFC Films/Sundance Selects) by Sara Jordeno, about the underground Kiki ballroom community in New York City, which premiered at Sundance 2016 and won the Berlin Teddy Award, the Kathleen Edwards Bryan Human Rights Award, the Outfest Emerging Artist award as well as Independent Spirit Award and GLAAD award nominations.

CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart, directed by Jeremiah Zagar for HBO/Sky Atlantic; Amy Hardie’s critically acclaimed The Edge Of Dreaming and her BAFTA nominated Seven Songs For A Long Life; This Land Is Your Land, which was selected for the Whitney Biennial; three films by Doug Block, which all aired on HBO, including 112 Weddings, The Kids Grow Up and 51 Birch Street, which was named one of New York Times 10 Best Films of the Year. Most recently she Executive Produced Hail, Satan? (2019) released through Magnolia Pictures. She received the 2019 Sundance I Amazon Producers Award.

Bios: Subjects

X Gonzalez

X Gonzalez is a 21-year-old gun control advocate born and raised in Parkland, Florida. A survivor of the Marjory Stoneman-Douglas High School shootings, X was instrumental in organizing the historic #MarchForOurLives protest, the largest student demonstration in American history. While in high school, X also served as the President of the Marjory Stoneman-Douglas Gay-Straight Alliance. In addition to their work with March For Our Lives, 
X is currently pursuing their undergraduate degree.

David Hogg

Thrust into the world of activism on February 14, 2018 by the largest school shooting in American history, Parkland survivor David Hogg’s mission of increasing voter participation, civic engagement and activism embraces a range of issues. He is a co-founder of March For Our Lives, now one of the world’s largest youth-led movements. A prolific voice on social media with more than a million followers, David uses his platform to promote civic engagement, activism and voting. As a speaker, he informs, challenges and energizes, empowering his generation to resist apathy and become catalysts for positive social change.

Alex King

Alex King is a youth activist from Chicago, Illinois and a member of the North Lawn College Preparatory High School’s Peace Warriors Foundation, where he graduated in 2018 and has been a leading student voice against gun violence in America's schools and communities. Peace Warriors’ goals has been to interrupt nonsense, to interject love and kindness; they are ambassadors of peace. The members live off the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, living a non-violent life and teaching Kingian nonviolence. Peace Warriors partnered with March For Our Lives in 2018 to address gun violence reform in Chicago and across the nation.

Bria Smith

Bria Smith is a youth activist from Milwaukee, WI. A current Emerson College student, she has organized and mobilized young people of color to voice their concerns when it comes to inner city gun violence as a Board Member of March For Our Lives. Smith has crafted a website called honeyforyourtea.com to give young girls of color the platform to speak of their experiences with discrimination and oppression through writing. Bria’s future career goal is to continue her work through film and journalism.

Jaclyn Corin

After the Parkland Shooting on February 14, 2018, Jaclyn Corin became a primary organizer and co-founder of the March For Our Lives movement. Using her logistical prowess, Jaclyn spearheaded the Road to Change tour during the summer of 2018 where the organization registered tens of thousands of voters and held dozens of town hall conversations. She went on to be the Director of Outreach for March For Our Lives, igniting a chapter network that now has over 300 chapters in communities/schools nationwide. Now, Jaclyn studies Government and Health Policy at Harvard University.

Sam Fuentes

On February 14, 2018 a gunman wielding an AR-15 entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and fired on students, faculty, and staff. Seventeen people lost their lives and many others were wounded. Samantha Fuentes was amongst the injured in the Parkland tragedy, and while fortunate to be alive, her body and life changed forever. She has bullet shrapnel permanently embedded in her legs and behind her right eye, and currently manages symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She lost revered friends and faculty members. Despite these tragic events, today, Samantha is resolved and committed to a poignant mission: to make sure that no child or adult is devastated by senseless and preventable gun violence ever again.

Annika Dworet

A native of Sweden, had been working as an ER pediatric nurse for 20 years when the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School took place on February 14, 2018 in Parkland Florida. Both of her sons were in the school that day; Alex, a Freshman was shot with an AR15 but survived, while his older brother Nick was murdered by an armed former student in the classroom across the hall. Nick had been recruited to the University of Indianapolis as a star scholarship swimmer a week before the shooting. 

On March 24, 2018 and what would have been Nick’s 18th birthday, Nick's Parkland schoolmates initiated March For Our Lives in Washington DC in response to the shooting to demand action on the gun violence issue. The global event spawned five continents and proved to be the largest youth protest in US history since the Vietnam era. Annika and her husband Mitch have committed themselves to honor the memory of Nick in a number of ways including a passionate concern for gun violence prevention. The Dworets are featured in the award-winning documentary film Us Kids that premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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