Parkland Rising

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Parkland Rising
"There's a lot going on under the surface."

In 2018, there were 24 school shootings in the US, which saw 35 people killed and 79 injured (there were 25 in 2019, but with fewer casualties), so it's understandable if you have only hazy memories of the one that took place in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida - the one that killed staff members Aaron Feis, Chris Hixon and Scott Beigel, plus 18-year-old Meadow Pollack, 17-year-olds Joaquin Oliver, Nicholas Dworet and Helena Ramsay; 16-year-old Carmen Schentrup; 15-year-olds Luke Hoyer and Peter Wang; and 14-year-olds Alyssa Alhadeff, Jaime Guttenberg, Gina Montallo, Cara Loughran, Alaina Petty, Martin Duque and Alex Schachter. In the UK, where we haven't had a school shooting since 1996 and there have been vanishingly few mass attacks of any kind in such environments ever, this is hard to comprehend. In the US it's so normalised that one critic of Cheryl Horner's documentary responded to the film by insisting that, statistically, children are less likely to be murdered at school today than ever before.

To die in a US school shooting is, all too often, to become a forgotten statistic - but Parkland was different. Perhaps it was the sheer scale of the massacre, one of the worst in the country's history; more likely, it was the immediate response of the school's surviving students, especially its student journalists. David Hogg recalls his parents begging him not to go out that night, but he picked up his camera and went - not just to record the candlelit vigil that took place, not just to feel comforted by the presence of his peers, but to protest. When the Parkland shooting happened the response was not simply to mourn but to take action to ensure that a mass murder like this would never happen again.

Where are the Parkland protesters today? Horner's film tracks their ongoing activism, reflecting briefly on big moments like the March 2018 March For our Lives but focusing primarily on the day to day. Who are these young people? How have they been affected by the shooting and by everything that has happened since? How are they balancing campaigning with getting through the remainder of their education, and how is it that their key message (not that guns should be banned but that guns should be regulated responsibly) has been so widely misrepresented?

One death is a tragedy. 16 is a number much harder to relate to. By focusing on a just a few people, Horner makes it easier for viewers to empathise, to really connect with these people. Hogg is a natural choice, young and passionate and remarkably skilled (sometimes in areas where no teenager should need to be - it's an unsettling thing to see him having to deal with death threats shouted from car windows). Manuel Oliver, father of the slain Joaquin, also makes quite an impression, intensely emotional when talking about his boy, now devoted to supporting the survivors and raising their voices.

Although the film at first appears a bit scattershot, shifting from one event to another and not necessarily giving priority to the ones that seem most important, there's a lot going on under the surface, with offhand remarks and observations proving important as it coalesces into a whole. Despite some emotive music and a focus on the idea that anyone can be a hero, it doesn't sanctify its young stars, letting us see their flaws and their occasionally startling naivety. It's more affecting as a result. We get glimpses of how sheltered they once were, of the power that gave them, and we see fragments of what remains, hinting at the people they might have been their power now transformed into something less self-focused and more capable of creating change.

The change that they have achieved in just two years is impressive - more so because we see it from the inside, understanding the process of it, rather than just being presented with a list of successes. Much of it comes from trying to build bridges; we see them connecting very effectively with local business owners and doing their best to find common ground with NRA members who can't resist a quick "Heil Hitler!" before the camera moves away. There's interesting comment on the tactics and condition of the NRA which, for all its talk, doesn't seem to be able to get many boots on the ground when it counts. More change has come from the ballot box, with the young people working very effectively to engage with ordinary voters over gun control issues, encouraging them to vote out politicians who cosy up to the gun lobby for cash. it's an approach that hasn't really been tried in the US before - at least not in this way - and it's proving remarkably effective.

Can the horror of US school shootings ever really be brought to an end? One suspects that it will take generations, but it has to start somewhere. Parkland Rising is full of youthful optimism. Released two years after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High murders, at a time when social tensions across the country could scarcely be more acute, it's a reminder that there's something beyond grief and destruction, something worth working for. The Parkland survivors may not be making national or international headlines anymore but they are still very much on the rise.

Reviewed on: 01 Jun 2020
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Parkland Rising packshot
A documentary following the students and family members who became fierce leaders of a national movement for gun reform following the shooting of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

Director: Cheryl Horner

Starring: David Hogg, Manuel Oliver, Emma Gonzalez, Jaclyn Corin, Matt Deitsch, Fred Guttenberg

Year: 2019

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US

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