Documentary director Maribeth Romslo opens up about her personal journey while making Raise Your Voice about student journalists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School navigating their school mass shooting as both survivors and journalists
RAISE YOUR VOICE tells the unique story of the student journalists who not only survived the tragic Parkland shooting but also reported on it. As a previous student journalist and now filmmaker, Romslo had a unique connection that compelled her to unveil this heartbreaking yet hopeful story, she explained to GOOD DOCS. Interview conducted by Sage Wallace-Williams.
There were tons of conversations and documentaries made surrounding the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and you chose a very specific and largely unique angle about that event to highlight in your film. Why did you decide to focus on student journalists and the power of journalism?
I think a big part of why I was drawn to the story of the Parkland student journalists was because I was a student journalist myself in high school and college.
On February 14, 2018, I watched news coverage of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I was angry. I was sad.
On CNN, Anderson Cooper interviewed MSD journalism teacher Melissa Falkowski. What she said left a mark. She had kept 19 students hidden and calm for nearly two hours in the newspaper classroom closet until the SWAT team arrived to escort them to safety. In her interview, she said that our country is failing our kids by not keeping them safe in schools.
I watched in tears and complete agreement. We shouldn't have to worry that when we hug our kids in the morning, that they could be shot to death at school. Or at the mall. Or at a movie theater. Or at church. Or at a dance party. Our hearts cannot continue to break like this.
In the days that followed the shooting, I couldn't stop thinking about Melissa Falkowski huddled in a utility closet with 19 teenagers.
I found the MSD high school newspaper website, Eagle Eye News. I spent a solid hour on the site, reading well-reported stories about topics that are important to teens today, such as vaping and rape culture. Well before the tragedy, these kids knew how to write, and they knew how to speak up.
Seventeen years ago, I lost my cousin to gun violence. My kids have lockdown drills at their public schools, and I have to talk to them about things like shootings and terrorism. I am also a filmmaker with a journalism degree, and former student journalist. So while I live in Minnesota, halfway across the country from Parkland, this story hit close to home.
Can you tell us why student journalism is important and how it has contributed to the free speech movement in this country?
Student journalists are doing incredibly important work in our country right now. Because so many newspapers have had to close their doors due to declining advertising revenues, student journalists are filling a gap by reporting on stories that might otherwise be ignored.
Student journalists have also broken some big stories in recent years, including stories about coronavirus outbreaks on college campuses.
Journalism by and about young people helps the public understand the needs of young people in a uniquely important way.
This film is very much about the profession of journalists and the training needed. Can you comment on the state of American journalism, the profession itself, the role of journalists, the perception of journalists today? What would you say is the fundamental role of journalists in any society?
The press has been under attack as the “enemy of the people” in recent years, which is a troubling assertion given that a free press is a vital building block of our democracy. Good journalism helps us seek and understand truth by humanizing complicated issues in our society.
Journalists often put themselves in harm’s way to make sure we have an informed electorate. Journalists hold officials accountable. Even just having a journalist in the room, makes corruption less likely.
So journalism is vitally important, especially in the divisive times in which we are living. Student journalists are serving an important role in reporting on their communities in and out of school.
How were you able to gain access to the students and establish familiarity and trust? Could you speak to those processes respectively?
After I saw MSD journalism teacher Melissa Falkowski on CNN the night of the shooting, I sent her an email saying I was interested in telling a story about her student journalists as they navigated the tragedy at their school as both survivors and journalists. A few days later, she called me and we talked for almost an hour. Melissa said she was open to the idea, but that ultimately it was up to the students.
I made a simple pitch video telling them who I was and why I was interested in pursuing a story about them. They agreed to meet me in DC at March for Our Lives for some initial filming. I started to build trust from there. In some ways, I had to build trust quickly. In other ways, I was able to let it build slowly. I didn’t rush them to trust me. I just kept showing up with a gentle and friendly approach. Not pushy. Just present.
Over time, it emerged who the main characters in this story were and I continued to check in and show up. It was key to have Melissa’s trust. The students respect her so much and so by gaining her trust, it paved roads for me to build trust with the students.
These student journalists were not only advocates, but they were also survivors. How did you approach their own experiences of trauma?
Anytime a filmmaker is telling a story involving trauma, great care needs to be taken to make sure the subjects have agency with their story and that the filmmaking process is careful not to re-traumatize them.
I always made it clear with the characters in the film that they were in charge of what they were comfortable answering or not answering in interviews. I also always tried to make sure it was clear why we were filming each scene, how it supported the story we were telling.
With the students, I imagined how I’d want a journalist or filmmaker to interact with my own kids as a guide. I was intentional about doing my best to approach every aspect of production with kindness, respect, and clear expectations of how I would portray their stories with dignity.
What were some limitations of following the stories of minors in a documentary? How would you compare the experience of following adults compared to minors?
Teenagers are minors, but they are also on the cusp of being adults, so it’s an interesting line to walk with respect to access. You need to be very respectful of the legality but teenagers also want to feel like they are in charge. So at times, I would message directly with a student character about something regarding filming, but would always make sure to then loop in Melissa and the student’s parents on the plan.
Again, it was so important to have Melissa’s trust through this process. It would have been very hard to tell this story without her trust that I would tell their stories with dignity and respect.
In many ways, this is a film about reclaiming narrative control. Could you describe the collaborative filmmaking environment established between yourself and the subjects?
The students were very curious about my process. They asked lots of thoughtful questions about gear and how we were doing things. I did my best to answer all of their questions. At one point, Rebecca even held a boom pole because she was curious and asked if she could! I hope being part of this documentary might inspire these students to explore making their own films.
This film involved a great deal of emotional investment. What was your self-care routine during the filming process?
I live in Minnesota, but this film lived in Florida and all over the country. While it was a bit of a logistics and financial challenge to live far away from where the story lived, the benefit of being geographically far away was that I wasn’t always able to work on the project. This gave me time to reflect and rest while waiting for the next story beat to unfold.
I also gave myself permission that the story couldn’t and wouldn’t happen overnight. Filming took over 18 months, on and off, and not being in a rush allowed me to follow the story as it unfolded from DC to Parkland to Iowa to Texas to New York.
I think self-care as filmmakers can often be about ways that we commit to the long game of each project. It can take a long time to make a film and it takes dedication and perseverance. For my birthday last year, a friend gave me a Japanese Daruma doll, a small paper mache object about the size of an orange that sat on my desk for the entire editing phase of the project. You fill in one eye of the doll’s face with a maker when you set your goal (editing the film) and fill in the other eye when you have manifested your goal. There was something very encouraging about how the Daruma doll patiently watched me every day of the edit until the film was complete
What aspect did you enjoy most when filming this project?
It’s always the people for me. Getting to know everyone who was in the film (and others who aren’t in the film but I met along the way) and helping to tell their stories was such an honor.
Getting to know Mary Beth Tinker was a career highlight. She is such a fierce advocate for youth and free speech rights. When I met her in DC at March for Our Lives, I told her “My name is also Maribeth. And I also grew up in Des Moines.” She said “Well I have to hug you!” I knew then there some magic story serendipity was happening. Nearly a year later, the Parkland students travelled to Iowa to cover the 50th anniversary of her Supreme Court case.
One funny story about working with Mary Beth Tinker in the film is that my husband is a lawyer, and he still can’t believe I regularly exchange texts with Mary Beth Tinker. She’s a constitutional law icon. Her case is a landmark Supreme Court case always studied by law school students. Sometimes when I’d be messaging with Mary Beth Tinker, he’d joke that he was texting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
What advice do you have for filmmakers, especially, those covering traumatic events and working with survivors?
Tread carefully. Create a safe space and make sure your characters have agency with their own story. Make it clear that they have ownership of their trauma story. As the filmmaker, we are the witnesses to their story and how they want to share it.
What are some central messages you hope viewers walk away with?
I hope viewers take with them a deeper understanding of our First Amendment Rights and why it is important to defend those rights. I hope that youth and adults gain more understanding about how powerful young people’s voices are in our society. I hope by hearing the stories in the film, that youth are empowered to speak up about what they care about. I hope that adults are empowered to be allies for young people in using their voices to positively impact society.
Sage Wallace-Williams is from Fayetteville, North Carolina, and is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri where she received her M.A. in Documentary Journalism; previously, she earned her B.S. in Multimedia Journalism from North Carolina A&T State University. Her career goals are to become an executive within the documentary space.