On Feb. 14, 2018, 17 people were killed—and another 17 injured—when a shooter opened fire at Stoneman Douglas High School. The survivors went on to organize the largest youth protest in American history and spark the nation’s largest midterm election turnout ever among young voters.
“Us Kids,” directed by Kim Snyder, follows these survivors turned activists as they travel the country by bus creating and spreading awareness for the “March For Our Lives” movement. The first stop on a multi-city drive-in tour, the documentary premieres tonight, Tuesday, Aug. 25 at the Carpool Cinema in Wynwood at 7 pm.
Snyder, director of the Peabody award-winning documentary “Newtown,” sat down with The Miami Hurricane to discuss making the film and what she hopes audiences (and voters) will take away from it.
TMH: Tell me a little bit more about how you ended up doing this project, the filming process and how you got in touch with the students.
KIM: In a nutshell, I had made a film back in 2016 about the Newtown [mass shooting in Connecticut], and [after], I kind of thought I was done with that. It was a tough film to make and I had gotten very close to a lot of families there. Honestly, I was working on another project in Florida when the Parkland shooting happened. It was really the beginning of what we now know as a sort of youth movement that grew up around gun violence prevention and I thought “well I have to do this.”
So, it was fate that brought me there. I went down to Parkland and started to meet people. I got to know Samantha Fuentes, who’s in the film, really well. Sam was shot with an AR-15 four times in her classroom and witnessed her good friend Nicholas Durrett, who was a star swimmer, killed next to her. She befriended his younger brother after the shooting so they kind of bond over that shared trauma.
Really, the film is about movement building; it’s not about Parkland. [It’s about] this generation that I’m so inspired by that took that rage, took that trauma and that range and translated it into action that really made an enormous difference. So, I started to follow them, and they agreed to have our team sort of shadowing them for 50 cities. We were with them for two months across America…We premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and had a whole number of them in tow.
TMH: One memorable part of the film is when Emma [Gonzalez] speaks about her experience on “60 Minutes.” She did a five hour interview and they used the parts of her crying, leaving out her most controversial arguments. How did you as a filmmaker approach this movie to make sure the students’ voices were heard?
KIM: We didn’t censor them at all. Along the way I met with them and would say “What do you think of this?” They were really collaborators in the film. And we also made a choice to cut out most of the adults. There’s no talking heads in this movie. It’s really meant to show the public that, while some of these students became celebrity activists in their own right, that they’re still young people that have lives.
Of course, there’s editing. We have hundreds of hours [of film], but we specifically didn’t want to shy away from having them talk about the onslaught of the media, how they were handled, how they took part of that narrative. In the beginning, you know, they’re high school students, and they want attention because they’re angry, and some of that comes through. Some of their critics would say “Oh you just want to get on TV. You know you politicize this,” but they clearly did not want the fame; that was not the motivation and, in many cases, it was draining and difficult.
And they did get that attention. They were on CNN Town Hall and all these things happened. And I think there was this moment of saying, “wait a second, we’re a generation of social media. We don’t really need that old school stuff as much. We can reclaim this narrative, our own way.” I think the film was also part of that process, of helping them to reclaim a narrative with their own words that didn’t have an agenda other than to lend them their voice and tell their story in their own way.
TMH: Absolutely. Can you talk about what it was like for you, as a filmmaker who, dare I say it, might not be a member of Gen Z, to go on a tour with these kids. What’s going through your mind when you’re watching them and seeing the reactions they’re getting from both supporters and people that are very critical (some to the point of threatening their lives)?
KIM: It’s interesting. I don’t have kids, so I kind of entered with a blank slate. Whether I have a 96 year old friend or a 15 year old friend, I kind of approach human beings like everybody has something to share. I think there was an understanding that this wasn’t like adults and kids. Our exchanges were very [respectful]. It doesn’t matter how old people are; as a filmmaker, if someone says no, once I don’t ask twice.
I felt as someone older than them that I didn’t want to fetishize them. There were people who were attacking them, everything from death threats to “oh my god you’re gonna save the world.” I didn’t really buy into either of those things. Emma says that well in the film: “People are like, ‘Oh, you’re so brave’ you know, and it’s sort of like ‘We’ve got business to get done.’”
I think part of the frustration in your generation is that a lot of shit didn’t get done and it needs to get done.
And so, watching them I was impressed with the hard work and diligence. The film shows the toll it took, the exhaustion. I was exhausted; they were exhausted; there was a lot of bad unhealthy fast food. It’s a lot like waking up in different places every day, not seeing your friends. The biggest teaching part for me was being in Texas and seeing them have the most civil dialogues with people who had different opinions and really respecting that they did it in a polite, informed and effective way.
It just goes to show that yes, this country is polarized on a lot of issues right now. But you can have conversations with people and not attack one another. And I think that they restored, for me, a feeling that this country can get back to a better place of empathy and civility. In a lot of ways, I saw them as patriots trying to restore certain values that we do have in this country and have had. Just restoring that feeling like we’re all in something together, and we have to support one another, whether it be across color, across ages, etc. That’s one of the great things coming out of this youth movement.
TMH: What has happened since, and what comes next? I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this drive in series is happening during an election year. Are you staying in touch with the kids? Is this sort of an ongoing process?
KIM: We’re very much in touch. And we’re working in partnership with “March For Our Lives.” They have a program called “Our Power,” and they’re very much connected to “Black Lives Matter” and “Rock the Vote” to try to turn the youth vote out. We’re launching in tandem with that effort a sort of “sneak preview” of the film. Hopefully, closer to the electoral cycle, there will be a nine plus city tour starting tomorrow night in Wynwood. It’s Covid-safe; it’s an old school drive-in and there’s food. There will also be an appearance with Sam Fuentes.
So, it’s fun and it’s safe. The film is about giving voice to young people. That’s really all it is. It’s the youth movement. It’s not a film about Parkland; it’s a film about the youth movement that happened to start in your own backyard and then spiralad on from there. We’re excited to try to make this all unfold in the next two months, and hopefully, with your help and the power of social media, we can spread the word because there are, I will just say, cryptically corporate forces that don’t want this film to be seen in this kind of very tumultuous moment in 2020.
TMH: Do you want to expand on that statement?
KIM: We’re moving into a place where major media forces are starting to monopolize. And it’s not to knock any of the streamers—we’re seeing some of the best TV we’ve ever had. It’s just that once things get really corporatized, people get nervous about films that may not be as censored.
I don’t see our film as political. The kids in our film do not see it as “vote for this person.” It’s not that; it’s not about red or blue at all. But, it is a true document of thousands and hundreds of thousands of youth that are just traumatized and rightly pissed off and wanted to do something about it—that’s really what the film is. So, if it’s political to become engaged and want to protest, whether it be about gun violence and prevention or Black Lives Matter, then that’s the reality we’re living in.
TMH: I know we need to wrap up so last question: What do you want people to take away from this film?
More than anything, it’s for young people. I want young people to see it. I want young people to go home and have conversations with their parents and grandparents, even if they disagree. Don’t get frustrated; that’s important. Jackie in the film does that with her dad, and he ends up coming around at a certain point [not in the movie, but in real life.]
And, I want people to vote. It’s really important to be engaged. These things are really important about your future and lots of policies that are going to affect everything from gun violence to global warming. The more young people can get civically involved and run for office, the better off this world is going to be.
To learn more about the film, Snyder, and tomorrow’s event in Wynwood, visit uskidsfilm.com.