US KIDS is the newest and final film in what has become a trilogy of Kim A. Snyder’s urgent work on Gun Violence. GOOD DOCS intern Chloe Hanna sat down with Snyder to get an in-depth understanding of everything from the process of making the film to what audiences can learn from the young folx she featured.
“The thing that makes me the most proud about this movie is that young people relate to it because I specifically took all of the adults out. I never had a lot of them in, but I gave all the speaking parts to people 20 and younger.”
Can you tell us about your background and give us an overview of what your new film, Us Kids, is about?
I’ve been making documentaries for over 20 years. I got into filmmaking circuitously. I started out with foreign feature films and bringing them to the United States back when the Berlin Wall fell, in my twenties. I then got my start in narrative feature film, not documentary, and worked on an Oscar-winning short which was my first producing credit. I went on to work on a Jodie Foster film, something she directed. Then life took me in a direction where it landed me; in an unplanned way, directing my first documentary. That came about through very personal motivation and obviously having been involved in the film world, but I hadn’t directed. Ever since then I have stayed in directing docs. I have made over a dozen short documentaries. My debut documentary back in 2001 was called I Remember Me which ended up distributed by Zeitgeist Films. I made a feature documentary that landed on Independent Lens called Welcome to Shelbyville back in 2011 and that was focused on immigration; incredibly timely right now, in a small town in bible belt Tennessee. Then in 2016, I released the movie Newtown which won us a Peabody award, and that was also not planned. That was the beginning of what I now consider a trilogy of films that revolve around the gun violence space. That was of course around that horrific shooting and one town's reaction; the ripple effect of gun violence in one town in 2016 when it was released, but I started filming shortly after that elementary school shooting in Newtown Connecticut in 2012. I spent over three years in the community building trust. I went into it wanting to tell a story about collective grief and this shameful moment that sadly now is not rare at all anymore, but then it was more rare, and I think it was an important and visceral account of what one town suffers in the wake of these kinds of mass shootings. I think in the process I became somewhat of an activist, or that was the beginning of it. I didn’t know much more about gun violence than the next person, I had no specific personal connection to it. Then my producing partner Maria Cuomo Cole and I made a second short film that was culled from that material called Lessons from a School Shooting: Notes from Dunblane and that ended up winning the best short at Tribeca and was acquired as a Netflix Originals. That stayed in the space of Gun Violence and had an international twist that really was about these communities, this club that nobody wanted to belong to, and paying it forward. Then I sort of thought I was done and I was working on another project in Florida that had nothing to do with gun violence and oddly enough found myself in Tallahassee, in the state capital of Florida when the Parkland shooting happened. I knew it was a different moment in the trajectory of the whole gun violence space, and I was there with my crew and that was the beginning, and the birth of a youth movement that really took hold and what would become Us Kids. Three years later here we are, and the film is finally released and out.
Let me just say; whereas Newtown was about the collective grief of one town, the one thing that I couldn’t let go of after having done Newtown was this story that we couldn’t tell. Which was about the kids who escaped their first-grade classroom, and not before seeing their friends and teachers murdered in front of them, first graders. Of course, I had already documented the incredible pain of parents who lost children but the ones who escaped suffered for years from PTSD and all kinds of repercussions. I started to take in this nation of increasing numbers of traumatized youth and to think about how much attention we give to mass shootings, and how this plays out in communities across the country. Especially in urban communities and in black and brown communities. This last week; 180 shootings in a week. Every time one of those shootings happened, there are kids that are traumatized, that lose family members, or see it and I started to think about it. I really didn’t think that society was asking the question of the cost of that, and this apathy and inaction toward the issue. I am not a filmmaker that goes in by issue, but what I really wanted to do with the emotional terrain in Newtown was more about grief, Us Kids was more about rage, frustration, and action. It’s about the perspective of youth around this issue and finding some way to take power back out of this, and avenging the deaths of their friends essentially or that’s what the motivation was. We needed to show the face of a movement that also became inclusive and had diversity and that stretched across the country and even beyond our borders and influenced people like Greta to do this work around climate and all kinds of other issues.
How did Bria, David, Sam, and X emerge as the main subjects in the filming process?
There were a whole number of young people that I spent time with when I first started to build ties in Parkland itself. I knew Sam was critical because I knew her and I was introduced to her, I wrote her a private letter, and she will say now that she had been inundated with a lot of press but I got to her through a gentler more circuitous angle, through the family who lost their son Nick, who I had been put in touch with. For people to understand that this wasn’t just a theoretical movement, it was born on the backbone of trauma, and Sam herself had been shot four times with an AR-15 in her class and I felt she needed to be the backbone or the spine of this. Then I went and had a meeting with X and their family for about 5 hours, that was after we were given very special access to the March for Our Lives march itself on March 24th that year with three cameras. X and I talked a little bit about what I was trying to do and they trusted me and collectively decided that they knew they were going on this Road to Change 50 city tour and that someone should try to document that. That was the beginning of working with that group from Parkland.
Then the road trip itself started in Chicago at the beginning of that summer. At that point, I was following what was genuinely happening, which was that they understood from day one that it didn't seem fair that yet another town of a mass shooting should get all of the attention. They wanted to find a way to not only go out into America and take this to people’s backyards, but they wanted to make this movement inclusive and shed light on all of these communities they were going through. So Alex King is from Chicago and then we got to Milwaukee where Bria was. They would go to these town halls and find local people that had been doing this work for years and they would sometimes pass the monies they raised forward. That core group from Parkland made a lot of these policies, they wouldn’t do press alone unless it was with someone from that community standing with them, because they understandably became very wary of the press and the way they celebratize things and under-represent all these black and brown communities of everyday gun violence. So that was really deliberate, and in chronicling that we decided that Alex and Bria were really important parts of that campaign across the country and afterward. Bria now sits on the board of March for Our Lives and then we went to Milwaukee to see what her community was like so that was how they became involved.
This film shows that sometimes, the line between 'activist' and someone just trying to survive gets blurred. What do you feel can be learned from these activists' stories of becoming so famous and politically active so fast?
I think they will say, or they do say when they are out and about with me that it's not about being an activist with a capital A. That there are so many different ways to get involved, and I think this is true about a lot of Gen Z. All kinds of people are demoralized with politics, so it's confusing because sometimes people equate activism with politics and I think that what they did a lot of was artivism. For example, Sam will say 'my way is through spoken word, through song.' and there was a lot of that. I think there is a lot of Gen Z having a better grasp of intersectionality, you can’t talk about gun violence without talking about a myriad of other things and those things actually became more relevant. I think the film is more relevant now than when we released it because that was pre-Black Lives Matter, pre-Covid, there is a public health component, there is a racial injustice component, there is a police brutality component. These root causes of gun violence are something that they thought about a lot and there is more of a holistic view. I also think that maybe because there is so much demoralization over what’s happening in the federal part of the government that there is more of an emphasis on what you can do in your own backyard and going hyper-local. These are the things that gave me hope. You hear people say, 'Nothing is going to happen' and if as a young activist you put all your hope on 'will this one bill pass the senate?' It's very frustrating, especially with things like the filibuster. People who have been affected by gun violence, sadly the burden is often on them because they know, and it's easy for the rest of us to stay in denial.
It’s not so different from the AIDS time when in the beginning it was just gay men who were dying who had to speak out, and when you really understood it was a movement was when you saw marches with all kinds of people. It was that recognition that we have a public health crisis that’s killing lots of people. Gun violence is the number one killer of kids in this country, and way more for young black men. It is a public health crisis. Our governor here in New York just likened it to Covid, it's killing lots of people every day. You have to look at it as a disease, we have to be able to do whatever we can. In terms of their celebrity, hopefully, the movie illustrates that it took its toll, and there are sacrifices, that not just they; but I think all of Gen Z, and I think all younger generations are bearing the burden of a responsibility that in a way deprives you of a certain aspect of your youth. The other thing that I learned from them is that they had to learn self-care along the way, that this is a long battle and you still have to find a way to be a regular young person and lead your life and not feel guilty that you are not doing enough to change the world. I think they also learned the empowerment of social media, the power that you can have, and not buying into this traditional celebratizing, but there are all kinds of ways you can make a dent.
What are some takeaways from the film that young people should pay attention to?
Firstly, reframing it, and not buying into the idea that this is unsolvable or that it's just a political issue that's Blue and Red. There were plenty of moments that we didn’t capture where they had such great conversations with other young people that didn't have the same views necessarily but they were civil. That’s the other thing that not only young people can take away - I like to think this film is intergenerational, something for different generations to watch, or they can watch together. The scenes in Texas; in particular, show us that they were able to have civil dialogue with other Americans that didn’t immediately go into a 'you’re scum' place. It’s a teaching moment, we have to find a way back in this country to be able to talk about our differences. If you are religious and you don’t believe in abortion, we should be able to have a conversation, 'I respect your opinion but I don’t agree.' With guns, I saw those conversations where it’s like, 'What do you think about arming teachers?' and the response could be 'Well I don’t really agree and that data doesn’t show that it would save lives.' For example, it's something like over 90 percent of Americans agree on background checks. It’s about understanding that a lot of times the NRA or the politics above us pit us against each other and make us think there is this huge divide when a lot of people are closer than we realize on a bunch of stuff.
In a bunch of the films I have made, when you are coming down to an issue that people are divided about, you start at, ‘What can we agree on?' Do we agree that we want to go to school or any number of places and feel safe, and not be shot by an AR-15, can we agree on that? Most people are going to agree. Then we go from there, and a lot of us have different ideas about what will keep us safe, ‘so let’s talk about that.’ and at some point, you get to a place where someone has learned something, and think about it a different way.
Do you think that the film will help with nonviolent communication? Was that one of the aims of the film?
I want it to make young people feel more empowered, because honestly; your generation, I don’t blame you if you don’t want to stay in the game and stay politically engaged because it feels pointless. Nobody really believes in the political system, it’s broken, and I agree that it looks that way. But we need young people to run for office, we need young people to fight for this country. The film is really three things. First, giving a voice to trauma, to young people saying, ‘This is what we feel all of the time, it’s not right and people need to listen.’ Then, it is advocating for gun violence prevention and how you can think about that. Lastly, that it does make a difference to show up. It makes a difference to show up and cast your vote, and learn what other people feel about what issues are important to you.
I think that people fall into the myth that these kids were so special and so unusual, and I have met kids like that all across the country. There was a perfect storm of a moment for X and David and some of the other people, but the truth of it is that in 47 days they figured out a way to pull off the largest youth protest in American history. They aren’t the only ones, and they aren’t the ones right now, they have passed the torch and there are plenty of others walking in their shoes.
March for Our Lives accomplished many things, from increasing youth voter turnout to getting several policies passed, but what was its impact on you, as the filmmaker?
What I hope the film exhibits is that we have to stand in solidarity. What I learned is that there is a lot of ageism that goes both ways, diversity is not just about color and gender, it is also about age. The difference is that if you are old you were once young, if you are young you were never once old. It doesn't work both ways, but a lot of older people forget that young part of themselves. I think what happens; which I fight against all of the time, is that to stay youthful and open-minded in life you have to not develop condescension, which a lot of people do. A lot of people dismiss young people, ‘You are too young, you don’t know what you are talking about. You didn’t live through it.’ There is a cynicism that comes through the battles of life, so there is an ageism that goes from old to young. Then there is conversely, ‘You’re not woke, you don’t know what you are talking about. You aren’t living in my world, the world has changed.’ And it has. There has to be the humility of people my age to say, 'Yeah, the world has changed and I want to learn what it’s like.’ I think people need to work harder intergenerationally on mutual respect, and I think it’s about being able to neither be condescending and attack (like in the case of David), nor is it fetishizing and saying, ‘Oh my God you guys are amazing! Go! Go! Go!’ because you shouldn’t have that burden. Our generation dropped the ball, we weren’t active enough and things are really fucked up right now. I did a Zoom with Cher who became one of our Executive Producers, and she was on with X and Sam. It ended great because Sam asked her, ‘What do you say to our generation?’ and she said ‘You know what, our generations would be a perfect match because we are both pissed.’ That felt like everything to me. I think that intergenerational dialogue is something that we need to work on. There are lots of cultures that embrace respect for elders and there is just a lot more exchange between generations in a lot of cultures around the world. I feel here it gets very segmented, but I think it's very healthy and people learn and grow and it's a very win-win for everybody when there is intergenerational communication. In terms of movement building it has to be intergenerational too, we have to stand by the youth because you have more years ahead of you and more energy. We have to figure out how best to support you; sometimes it's writing checks because ostensibly we have banked more money, sometimes it's just listening in a different way or lending experience and advice, or mentoring in the right way. That’s one of the things that I have taken in a lot from this film.
Kim, do you have your next project planned or do you prefer a more organic process?
I learned with Us Kids that I really like working with this age. I think it's a really unique and special time in life. I got back in touch with that part of me and I would like to explore more of working with younger people. I am thinking about not just documentary but transitioning that into narrative/fictional film work. I want to teach more, and part of me wants to do something a lot lighter, like a music doc. Another part of me is saying it's a very tough time in the country and I need to do what I know how to do to affect change and help the course of things and that’s storytelling. So that sometimes leads to a more political direction or at least social action. I have one project that is more political. I am also keenly interested in your generation and gender fluidity and there is a lot of that out there storytelling-wise. I think there are ways that can convey to older generations what this new world feels and looks like, so however that translates is where I am heading. It's also true sometimes things just fall in your lap and you have to be open to it, like everything in life.