School shootings happen with such regularity in America now that they barely get reported, or if they are reported, they are swiftly forgotten.
That has not been the case with the Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which happened on Valentine’s Day of 2018, because some of the survivors — notably David Hogg and Emma González — led protests and put themselves forward to the media as the faces of a new generation who were not going to settle for “thoughts and prayers” for a day.
“After Parkland” is a documentary that follows several of the survivors of the shooting. Filmmakers Jake Lefferman and Emily Taguchi were given access to Hogg and his family, but González is only seen at a rally in Washington, D.C. where she reads out all 17 of the victim’s names. She says something personal about all of them before stopping and remaining silent for six minutes, which was all the time the killer needed to do his damage.
The focus of “After Parkland” wavers between two fathers of the victims, Andrew Pollack and Manuel Oliver, and their very different but equally effective campaigning for change. Pollack addresses a “listening session” in Washington, where he is met with the likes of corrupt education secretary Betsy DeVos and our reckless, foolish, cruel president, both of whom make hackneyed “concerned” faces. Pollack concentrates on changes at the local level in Florida and pushes for a bill that went through that raised the minimum age for buying rifles to 21 and established waiting periods and background checks for buyers.
Pollack is asked directly if he supports the banning of the AR-15 rifle, which was used in the Parkland shooting, but he sidesteps this and seems to think that such a ban cannot happen. He speaks about mental health and how many times police were called in regards to the shooter, who made many threats and sent out many warning signs.
The shooter is not identified by name in “After Parkland,” and this is understandable. The filmmakers clearly want to focus on the positive, and on the lives of the victims. But evil cannot be understood or fought by avoiding it. The specifics of evil and of evil actions need to be faced directly, even if you risk contamination or giving the committer of evil actions what they may want.
And that evil is often surrounded by the lesser evil of inaction, or failure to act. The controversy surrounding the inaction of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, and an armed school resource officer at the school is barely touched on in this film.
A great deal of “After Parkland” is spent detailing the life of Joaquin Oliver, and this is also understandable. His father Manuel uses Joaquin’s serenely beautiful face as an image on signs and public art works, making his son an emblem of the movement being led by the most active Parkland survivors. (We see a copy of David France’s book “How to Survive a Plague” on Manuel’s bookshelf as a model for his activism.) There is footage of Joaquin with his girlfriend Victoria Gonzalez, including a moment at school when she is painting his face and they look lovingly at each other.
In the aftermath of the shooting that killed Joaquin, Gonzalez says that she realizes that she is “really good at putting up a front.” We watch her and several of the other students going back to school two weeks after the shooting. Some of them get to graduate, and some of them have to enter their sophomore year, or their senior year. Since the Columbine shooting 20 years ago, dread has been added to the sheer plodding awfulness of high school, and anyone who went to school before that dread started should be concerned with removing it.
Gonzalez goes to the prom with Joaquin’s best friend, and she talks about how a fire alarm went off accidentally, and how a teacher who had been present during the shooting had a hard time with that. “Before the shooting, I had the greatest life,” says Pollack. “I was able to smile. I’m not able to smile anymore.”
Pollack’s focus on what can be done in his daughter Meadow’s name becomes more admirable as the film goes on, and his attention to specifics might have been adopted to the benefit of this well-meaning, touching, but sometimes evasive film.