“I was thinking about how we were going to get out… Was I going to die? Was I going to bleed out? Where did I get shot? Why am I bleeding from my face? Why can’t I see out my eyes?”
This is Sam Fuentes speaking; she’s a survivor of the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. Her best friend, 17-year-old swimmer Nicholas Dworet, was shot right in front of her by someone with swastikas etched into his ammunition. Ironically, as she tells the cameras in Kim A Snyder’s documentary Us Kids, it happened during a history class studying the Holocaust. Her young life, and the lives of her fellow surviving classmates, have been irreparably altered by the events of 14 February, when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others. It was the deadliest school massacre in US history, worse than the Columbine High School massacre that killed 15 in 1999, and worse than the 1996 Dunblane massacre, where Thomas Hamilton shot and killed 16 students and one teacher in the deadliest mass shooting in Britain’s history.
While Scotland’s Dunblane shooting would go on to inspire two new Firearms Act amendments outlawing the private ownership of most handguns in the UK, gun control in the US remains a deeply polarising subject. In the US alone, it is estimated that 35 per cent to 42 per cent of households have at least one gun, according to the Pew Research Center. While there are a few conditions around who may buy and sell guns in the US, opponents of gun control frequently cite the US constitution’s Second Amendment – the right to bear arms. They argue, too, that restricting that right would leave citizens unable to protect themselves in their daily lives. Meanwhile, gun control advocates point to troubling statistics: according to Everytown for Gun Safety, more than 100 people in the US are killed with guns and 200 more are shot and wounded, while the gun homicide rate is 25 times higher than that of other developed countries.
Snyder, who also directed a 2018 short documentary about Dunblane, says it was “happenstance” that brought her into producing so much work around the issue of gun violence. “It was never the issue per se that compelled me, but rather, the emotional terrain of trauma. I was inspired by films like Ordinary People and Adam Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter.”
In the months since the Parkland shooting, Fuentes and a handful of other classmates – David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, X González (formerly known as Emma), Jaclyn Corin, and more – sprang into action, calling for swift gun reforms and calling out legislators for accepting donations from the National Rifle Association. They also organised the student-led March For Our Lives demonstration. Drawing between 1.2 and 2 million participants, it became one of the largest protests in American history. In her documentary Us Kids, which saw its premiere at Sundance last year and will see wider distribution on 14 May, Snyder chronicles the March For Our Lives movement, following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High students as they join forces with fellow gun reform activists like Alex King and Bria Smith.
Making a film about gun violence is not exactly new territory for Snyder, who also directed 2016’s Newtown, about how the Connecticut community came together in the wake of its own mass shooting of schoolchildren. “I really had no intention of making another movie,” Snyder tells me over Zoom. “[But] what I couldn't let go of from that experience of spending three years in [in Newtown] was the idea of kids in trauma. And this question, ‘Is the country really looking at the cost of a nation of traumatised youth?’”
Unlike previous generations, the now-college-aged Parkland survivors have grown up with teachers and other authority figures guiding them through active shooter drills, which became commonplace in 2012, after the Newtown shootings. They have never known a world without 9/11, without terrorism, and without the constant, looming possibility that someone could burst into their school classroom and open fire. So it should come as no surprise that after someone did that very thing, the students began to organise and protest for gun control in the US.
On the one hand, Hogg, González, Kasky, Corin, and Fuentes are typical youngsters – they sing to themselves to pass the time, they joke around while driving around town, they scroll on their phones. “I was a normal-ass kid doing normal-ass things,” Fuentes says when Snyder asks her about life prior to the shooting. But a horrific event has also thrust them into adulthood. And now they’re left wondering, what are actual adults doing about this? And why won’t the adults in the room take them seriously when they lobby for change?
“Ageism goes both ways,” Snyder observes. “There's a lot of assumptions that are made about young people. One of them might be, a kind of impatience... I walked into this as a much older person than [the kids] with this truly open mind, [thinking], ‘I've been on the earth longer, but you've grown up in a different time.’ So, we have a lot to learn about each other, our generations.”
As different generations spent time together in the wake of the Parkland shootings and the subsequent March For Our Lives movement, so too did young people from communities across the country. As Us Kids documents, the Parkland kids began organising with Milwaukee gun reform activist Bria Smith and Chicago student-advocate for gun reform Alex King. They spoke about how gun violence is an everyday issue in their communities. Together, King, Smith and the Parkland kids launched the 2018 March For Our Lives rally in Washington, DC, toured the country to advocate for gun control, and spoke directly with local lawmakers and community members.
As the Parkland students became supercharged with anger and indignation at being targeted in their own classrooms, there is a note of chagrin from Smith, who is shown leading cameras around her Milwaukee neighborhood where city blocks are dotted with small, makeshift memorials for children who have died from gun wounds. “What about the kids of colour who are being shot every single day?” she asks.
This begs the question: as he teamed up with the Parkland students to advocate for common-sense gun laws, has King ever felt similarly frustrated that this issue has seen a spike in national media attention only after it affected a majority white community?
“I found myself wrestling with those thoughts more than once,” he admits, speaking to me over Zoom from his home. “Between the tour, coming back, speaking with families, speaking with friends, I was telling myself that I was basically being used as the face of colour. But at the end of the day, if the spotlight is here now, why wouldn't you try to get inside it? If someone is handing you the spotlight, why wouldn't you step forward? ‘Let me tell you about Chicago. Let me tell you what we go through on a day-to-day basis.’”
The things the Parkland students have done in the years since the shooting are extraordinary. Organise a historic march. Do speaking engagements. Tour the country. Give interviews to the press. Directly challenge lawmakers to stop accepting donations from the NRA. And yet, even with the media attention and national spotlight, Us Kids demonstrates the troubling realities this group of young people have had to absorb as a result of their activism. Hogg, for example, was one of the most outspoken advocates for gun reform after Parkland. And yet, he’s been dubbed a “crisis actor” by conservative media sources. His home was “swatted” (ie, targeted by a hoax emergency call to law enforcement). Us Kids even depicts him being heckled by drivers as they pass him on the street.
As an observer and documenter, Snyder says she has a “deep respect” and “empathy” for the students and all they’ve been. “As someone older, a different generation, you invariably think about, ‘OK, what was I doing the summer of 17 to 18?’ I would think about what I had the freedom to do, on all levels, emotionally. The things I didn't have to worry about as much.”
Making the documentary, she adds, “I was watching history. I was watching Patriots. I was watching young Patriots. So many people who've changed the world have been Alex's age. And so I felt privileged to watch history unfold and had no doubt that this would be historic in hindsight.”
And yet, the issue of gun violence persists. In 2021, there have been a recorded number of 147 mass shootings in the US, according to CNN. As an activist for gun reform, how does this sit with King? How does he get through the days when it can feel like profound change is impossible? “It drives me to push harder,” King says without missing a beat. “When I hear about another shooting, I'll think, ‘OK, what positive message could we put out to the light today to, to drain out this negative story?’ Like, we see shootings all the time on the news, but we don't see the block club parties. We don't see the trucks that come in and around Thanksgiving, around our holidays. Clothes drives, food drives and all of that.”
King also stresses the importance of looking out for yourself and others, and points to a scene in Us Kids where the student organisers step in for one another when it looks like someone is struggling to get through the day. “Some of us had our days where we couldn't go up on the stage [to speak],” he says. “We were just overwhelmed. There was no, ‘You have to do this.’ You can't help anyone if you can't help yourself. Just understanding that we’re in this together and knowing that we will create change, whether we see it or not, it will be created.”
Snyder, meanwhile, is optimistic that those in King’s and the Parkland students’ generation will be major arbiters of change as they get into positions of power. “There’s this line at the end [of Us Kids] where [González] says, ‘We have a lot more years than these guys are going to live,’” Snyder says. “It’s true. There has to be a generational shift because this generation is too traumatised for them not to make [change] – when they get in positions of power. I think they just can't make the same decisions because the experiences they've had have been too traumatic.”