Newtown: A Story of Collective Grief and Trauma

This post is part of a series “Healing in the Wake of Community Violence: Lessons from Newtown and Beyond,” based on an event of the same name hosted at Harvard Law School in April 2017. Background on the series and links to other blog posts are here

By Kim Snyder, Director and Producer of Newtown

We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another. – Mario M. Cuomo

newtown_sign_flags_webWhen I first landed in Newtown over four years ago following the horrific tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was drawn first and foremost to a story of collective grief and trauma. Seeing the story in the larger context of commentary on America’s problem with gun violence came later. My producing partner, Maria Cuomo Cole, and I both felt we hadn’t seen a documentary that chronicled the long tail of collective trauma for years out, after the cameras had left. We also hadn’t seen this story told from the perspective of an entire town. It is important to note that Newtown is a community of 28,000 people, and the vision of the film sought to represent a sample of voices from various sub-communities. Over the course of the next three to four years, we built trust with members of the Newtown community and explored the trajectory of collective trauma and resilience as it reverberated throughout Newtown and beyond. Not surprisingly, survival guilt was a pervasive theme that emerged. Through the perspectives of multiple sub-communities of the town—the educators, first responders, medical providers, clergy, neighbors, and youth—we came to observe a journey of fracture, isolation, and repair as this courageous community struggled to survive in the aftermath of the unthinkable. 

The trust forged with those members of the community who chose to participate was delicate and entailed forming relationships through a series of off-camera conversations. All of them were profound. When David Wheeler, the father of Ben, who died that day in his first grade classroom, says in the film, “There’s a natural human desire to protect the rest of the world from having to go through this,” it seemed like a similarly natural response to acknowledge that we, as a society, needed to bear witness to this horrific and shameful event in American history—the deadliest shooting of school children and their educators in the innocence of a first grade classroom.

As scores of subsequent mass shootings took place in the months and years following Sandy Hook, it became even more essential to break through the invariable desensitization that we as a society were experiencing. We specifically aimed to keep the film away from strong policy rhetoric, and to tell a human story that might reach across partisan divide and move beyond the polarized political space to one of shared humanity and empathy. Along the way, we followed narratives of how the tragedy affected not only so many in Newtown but, through connected fates, so many beyond. Some of these stories did not ultimately make the final cut, but still imbued the story with a sense of connectedness that affected other communities traumatized by gun violence—including the majority of those represented in urban centers across the country.

Since our premiere at the Sundance Film Festival over one year ago, we have traversed the country along with a team of Newtown friends and survivors, engaging with diverse audiences. This journey began with a series of private screenings within Newtown, and although not all survivors find it cathartic we have found that, for many, it has been important to stand with the community and acknowledge their own grief along with that of their neighbors. We’ve screened the film at hundreds of film festivals, community town halls, universities, hospitals, churches, and medical centers, and with lawmakers. These gatherings have spanned the country geographically, socioeconomically, and politically. It is interesting to note that although we often heard that there were many who initially feared seeing the film, our recent national broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens reached nearly two million viewers and was the most widely watched documentary of the season.

We’ve observed throughout this tour a pervasive sense of shared humanity and of collective grief over what many citizens are ever more clearly understanding as a gun violence epidemic and public health crisis in our country. We have been privy to fear, anger, frustration, and helplessness among community members, but also to civil conversations inclusive of gun owners willing to share varying perspectives and parallel concerns about how policy reform might help reduce mortality from gun violence. We have also seen particular niche audiences where the film is landing with resonance; these include trauma doctors, progressive faith leaders, college students, gun violence prevention advocates, and educators. We’ve heard from young people with unabated energy pledging to dedicate their college years to help reduce gun violence in our country and ensure a safer future for their kids. Our Newtown friends forge on, assuring them that the conversation is indeed changing. Among them is Danbury ER Dr. Bill Begg (a subject in our film), with whom we recently screened the film to a convening of 700 trauma surgeons; this has spawned over a dozen more screenings in that space, joining forces with our impact campaign to give voice to the growing number of medical professionals concerned with the imperative for gun violence research.

Those of our Newtown friends who have collaborated with us have soldiered on these last years, trying to spare any community from scars that will last generations to come. We hear them encourage audiences to translate the empathy and outrage they feel at the conclusion of the film to engage in civic discourse, to have difficult conversations with neighbors, kids, responsible gun owners. In those early months following the 12/14 tragedy, we heard a repeated mantra throughout the community—the desire not to be remembered singularly as a place of tragedy but as one that inspired meaningful change. In the making of this film, we were motivated to allow Newtown survivors a platform to bear witness to a horrendous and shameful tragedy, and in that process were also honored to render a remarkable display of strength, dignity, and resilience from a community that could be any town in America. We are all Newtown.

Watch Kim Snyder’s full presentation on the Petrie-Flom website.

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