THE HAUNTING NORMALCY OF MASS SHOOTING

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October 1st will mark a year since a young man shot and killed eight fellow-students and a professor at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Oregon. I learned about the unfolding events as we so often do these days—on social media. Over the next two days, I witnessed the cyclical conversation that seems to happen every time a mass shooting occurs. The first reaction is shock and horror, followed quickly by demands and pleas that something be done. Not long after, the finger-pointing begins. The conversation reaches a fever pitch and then, silence—until the next mass shooting takes place.

The shooting in Oregon made me really think about our endless cycle of outrage and inaction. I wanted to confront it artistically, not just this most recent shooting but the patterns and echoes of earlier events of mass violence as well. I decided to make a film about what seemed to be a worsening epidemic. Immediately, I faced the question: How do you make a film about a repeating pattern, where details change but where so much—the police response, the panicked calls for help—echoes the events that came before?

After a young man in Isla Vista, California, killed seven people, including himself, in 2014, the satirical news site the Onion posted an article titled “ ‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Several times since, in the wake of one of these tragedies, the site has reposted the same piece, with only the names of cities and other small details changed.

That bit of dark satire captured a depressing truth, but it also inspired me to create a cinematic response that I hoped would similarly be repeated and reposted when another event occurred. I decided to create a film that would be constantly updated. If there was another mass shooting, we would expand the film to include it.

The initial version of “Speaking Is Difficult” traced twenty-five mass-shooting events over five years, opening with the December, 2015, attacks in which a married couple killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, and moving back across our shared history to 2011. We sent twenty cinematographers to film the places where these events took place, many of which have returned to normalcy, with little to no trace of the murders that happened there. In each of these scenes, we see the places not as they were on the day of the event but weeks, months, even years later; the only sounds are the voices of police dispatchers, 911 operators, and shocked witnesses on the tragic day. Absent this audio, these landscapes of schools and businesses, highways and churches, would create an almost bucolic portrait of America. With the audio present, the portrait reveals horrors in the most unremarkable and unimaginable places.

The expanded version of the film published today includes four recent mass shootings, beginning in Dallas and continuing to Orlando. As the news of these events began to spread this summer, I had a gut check about the project, realizing what it will feel like to expand the film many times in the years to come.

“Speaking Is Difficult” always ends with the same tragic moment: the 2011 shooting outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona, where CongresswomanGabrielle Giffords survived an attack that killed six others. It wasn’t just the shocking nature of a brazen assassination attempt on a sitting congresswoman that resonated with me; it was the evidence we have that something profound changed that year. Since 2011, mass-shooting events have more than tripled in frequency, according to data compiled by Mother Jones and analyzed in 2014 by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern Universities. A distinct F.B.I. report came to the same conclusion.

I’ve made a number of films about politicians, and I know that every member of Congress must have imagined himself or herself in Giffords’s shoes after she was shot, and yet they still couldn’t manage to come together to do anything to reduce gun violence. If an attack on one of their own colleagues couldn’t prompt a serious conversation, what could?

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