Home SXSW Documentary “Newtown” spotlights community healing after unthinkable tragedy

Documentary “Newtown” spotlights community healing after unthinkable tragedy

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Photo courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

“Newtown” is a devastatingly beautiful documentary that will break your heart and expose your mind.

Director Kim Snyder takes viewers on an emotional rollercoaster detailing a town’s collective healing after an unforeseeable tragedy rocked the community. Newtown is the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which took place Dec. 14, 2012 and left 28 people, including 20 children, dead—rocking the nation.

From beginning to end, sniffles echoed throughout the theater. “Newtown” is not for the emotionally fragile. The documentary takes viewers into the daily lives of those most affected by the actions of a crazed gunman.

The structure of the film plays more like a eulogy as opposed to a screenplay. The primary subjects of Snyder’s artistic genius are Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan; Mark Barden, who lost his son Daniel; and David Wheeler, who lost his son Ben.

Snyder deliberately chooses to not name the killer, highlighting the importance of the children’s memory and the community in grief. It was an impactful choice because far too often films seeking to tell the stories of calamity focus on the monsters.

Snyder’s choice to take a different route streams into the resilience of a group of parents and people who will be connected forever. As the film follows those families in transition, the trauma of that December night is never too far away.

In one emotional scene, Hockley sits in a car speaking about her activist work. The mother breaks down talking about how being away from home is enjoyable because for a brief moment she can pretend Dylan is home safe.

While the political undertones lie relatively dormant, they are perceivable. Snyder delves into some of the parents’ gun control activism, namely Hockley and Barden.

Throughout the film the gun control message neither wallows nor overpowers the narrative, it simply is. “Newtown” does not seek to be an explicitly political film, nor is it. However, portions unrepentantly advocate for a continued national conversation on gun control.

Outside of the mourning families, the film also focuses on those living with survivor’s remorse. One neighbor recalls going to the school after the tragedy. She vividly describes the conflicting emotions she experienced when reunited with her son whereas her neighbors stood childless. She broke down.

Lead composer Fil Eisler perfectly captures the complexity of the film, as it varies between shock, sadness and hope. The score sequentially follows the stages of grief, mourning and works in tandem with the way director of photography Derek Wiesehahn captured every moment.

Pitch-black screens separated scenes and interviewees, as if to offer a moment of contemplation, reflection and ease for the viewing audience. Editor Gabriel Rhodes mixed and matched the scenes together perfectly to create a sequential, almost episodic feel.

“Newtown” epitomized what everyone says after tragedy strikes: “never forget.” The only difference is Snyder will make sure it holds true for a long time.