Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"It's hard not to come to the conclusion that the idea of "fear" has been distilled, bottled and sold."

Even during the pandemic, it's sad to note that school shootings in the US have continued - despite the move of many to remote learning there have been 24 incidents, at the time of writing, this year. The steady stream of documentaries considering these tragedies has also continued, although Todd Chandler's film - which took home the Best International Emerging Filmmaker Award at this year's Hot Docs - comes at the subject from an unusual angle.

Instead of considering a specific incident or incidents, he flips the whole scenario on its head, to take a look at what is happening in many American schools as a result of student killing sprees. What he finds is almost as chilling as the acts themselves - an emergence of a sort of school security industrial complex, as keeping kids safe becomes a concept packaged by businesses who seem only too ready to capitalise on fear.

Chandler's film offers a picture of what is happening rather than a running commentary, quietly drinking in the everyday comings and goings, alongside the amped up security measures. His film captures the surreal sight of shooter lockdown drills - kids going through the motions of blocking up doors and trying to stay safe in the event that one of their classmates turns killer - while in a neighbouring classroom a blackboard urges students: "Let's end this year with a bang". It's chilling not only to think that this sort of exercise may be necessary, but also to see it in action, with many of the adults who are organising the surveillance and gun arsenals failing to consider that, as one kid puts it, the drills may be "almost as traumatising as a real life incident".

It's hard not to come to the conclusion that the idea of "fear" has been distilled, bottled and sold. Chandler takes his camera to an event dedicated to school security, where bulletproof whiteboards are peddled and into shooting classes aimed at helping teachers take aim, if necessary. His cinematographer Emily Topper also comes at things from unusual angles, focusing on the hands of kids as they go through a drill, for example, or lingering on the feet of teachers as the bullet casings from their target practice bounce off the floor.

One school has invested in no less than 22 AR15s, kept in a safe just rooms away from where kids are shooting hoops, while at a conference a speaker evokes Isiah as a pep talk for picking up a weapon - and yet, when questioned, a headteacher says if he had the choice he's rather be spending the money on the kids' mental health.

Inevitably, there's a sensing of wanting more from this film than its trim running time can provide. More from the kids on the ways that the drills affect them and more discussion from those in charge - encapsulated by a meeting where one man tries to lay responsibility for all school shooting at the feet of medication. A segment concerning one woman's move into Kevlar hoodie manufacturing, although indicating how big business soon becomes involved, also doesn't quite dovetail as snuggly with the rest of the more observational style footage.

Chandler coolly paints a detailed picture of a weaponised world just waiting to be triggered and invites us to think about who exactly is loading up the fear and why.

Reviewed on: 21 Oct 2021
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Considers the shooter drills and security measures that have sprung up in US schools in the wake of mass shootings.

Director: Todd Chandler

Year: 2020

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: US


SXSW 2020

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