On Valentine’s Day of 2018, in an affluent suburb of Florida called Parkland, a gunman murdered 17 people in 6 minutes and 20 seconds at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
It wasn’t the first mass school shooting in modern U.S. history, and it wasn’t the last. But after this particular shooting, something began to change in U.S. dialogue and activism, and Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman’s documentary After Parkland holds a magnifying glass up to this pivotal event.
This movie isn’t for the faint of heart; moments after its opening, we hear audio footage from the school shooting, along with screams and cries of students. The powerful blasts of the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle are jarringly loud and terrifying – even on screen. “My teacher’s dead,” we hear one student say. And it didn’t end there… Alyssa. Alex. Alaina. Joaquin. Meadow.
After Parkland’s first interview is with Andrew Pollack, father of Meadow, a young girl whose life was claimed by the Parkland shooter on that fateful day. He remains one of the chief subjects throughout the movie, in addition to a young student named Tori (Victoria Gonzalez) who survived her boyfriend, Joaquin. The filmmakers also follow Joaquin’s parents Manuel and Patricia Oliver, a young survivor named David Hogg who quickly rose to media fame in the weeks following the shootings, and a few other students who survived that day. The story gives space to their differing journeys, their ghosts, and their hopes for the future. True to its title, it gives us a longer look at what happens to a community and those in it after such a devastating crime, and the media blitz that follows. A few, like Pollack, try to stay out of the public eye and focus more deeply on their local community, instead of the national conversation. Others throw themselves almost immediately into activist work, like the Olivers who founded the anti-violence organization Change the Ref.
Directors Taguchi and Lefferman exhibit both passion and restraint in their interviews, the story structure, and how the scenes are framed. There are moments of brutal honesty and vulnerability in so many different ways, like when Meadow’s dad admits, “I’m not able to smile anymore,” or when Tori muses an opposite but strikingly parallel sentiment: “I’ve learned, I’m really good at putting up a front.” The shots are long when they need to be, the scenes are patient, and the dedication to portraying the impossibility of grief moved me deeply.
The movie’s climax is footage of the March for Our Lives in Washington D.C. (which happened just over a month after the shooting) particularly the speech by survivor Emma González, which included several minutes of haunting silence as she invoked the amount of time it takes a semi-automatic rifle to claim lives.
Some of the movie’s most heart-rending moments happened in smaller, quieter settings, where the filmmakers made me consider some things about surviving a school shooting that I never had before.
What would the basketball tournament look like if the star player had been slain by a gunman?
What if his father was the coach?
Who would take me to prom, if my boyfriend had been shot?
Would I still attend the high school graduation if my child wasn’t there to receive the diploma she worked so hard for?
Would I walk across the stage for her?
Probably the weakest part of the movie was the ending, which felt a little rushed and unfocused to me, compared to the thoughtfulness of earlier scenes. But on the whole, it’s hard to find much to critique about After Parkland.
On the morning of March 14th, 2018, exactly one month after the shooting, I sat at my window-facing desk on 12th street in Manhattan and listened to the rallying cries of children who were marching up the nearby avenue. Students all over the world engaged in a 17-minute walkout that morning (one minute for each Parkland victim), to draw attention to how the state of gun violence has escalated in recent years. It was heartbreaking and inspiring to hear their young voices floating through the air.
“We are the future,” many of them chanted.
And they are.
The main reason why so many of the Parkland kids catapulted to fame in the months following the tragedy was their bold and unflagging sense of urgency. This group of kids and families, mired in trauma as they were, plunged into the world of activism and policy and vowed to see an end to the epidemic of mass school shootings in the U.S. It’s certainly not over; tragically, two more students from the Parkland community died as a result of suicide in early 2019. But the survivor's soldier on, still in the trenches, writing memoirs, starting movements, strategizing, giving interviews, lobbying, showing up.
I might be twice their age, but I wanna be like these kids when I grow up. If they are the future, it looks to me like the future is in good hands.