Politics

'Newtown' Film Screening Dovetails With Dems' Gun Message

Examines families who lost children in Connecticut school shooting

Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, seen addressing a school group on the U.S. Capitol steps, has emerged as a leading advocate of enhanced background checks. (Douglas Graham/Roll Call file photo)

PHILADELPHIA — When organizers of the Impact Film Festival decided on their lineup of topical documentaries they would show at this year’s Democratic National Convention, they could hardly have expected that their screening of “Newtown” would come on the day Democrats chose to address the issue of gun violence head-on in prime time.  

But that’s what happened, and the movie about the aftermath of the December 2012 mass murder of schoolchildren and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut was screened just a few hours before Erica Smegielski and Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, along with others touched by gun violence, were scheduled to address the party gathering.  

“We are all connected to this,” Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was one of 20 children killed at Sandy Hook, said at a post-movie panel. He was referring to gun violence, but the movie’s connection to the topic at hand here was on full display as well, as advocates prepared for an emotional night of addresses.  

Smegielski’s mother Dawn was the principal of Sandy Hook and was killed trying to protect her students. Murphy has been a tireless advocate for enhanced background checks. Also scheduled to speak in the convention hall: former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who survived an assassination attempt and has since founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, and Christine Leinonen, Brandon Wolf and Jose Arriagada.  

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Leinonen is the mother of Christopher "Drew" Leinonen, who was killed in the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, Florida, last month. Wolf and Arriagada survived the Pulse shooting.  

The timing of the film’s screening was coincidental, but provided the opportunity to discuss the issue at the festival here at the Arden Theater Company. Other films looked at cancer prevention (“The C Word”), nuclear safety (“Command and Control”), the liberal icon Norman Lear (“Just Another Version of You”) and African-American challenges in Washington (“Check It”).  

But “Newtown” provided an entry point to a topic taking up a disproportionate share of the national conversation, following a rash of shootings in recent months.  

“We wanted a platform to discuss issues everyone is talking about, and we found five films that all are relevant to what people are talking about in 2016 in general,” said Jamie Shor, co-founder of the festival. “We always feel like this is the best way to tell as story — ask people to take 90 minutes out of their day to spend time with an important topic.”  

The film tells the story from the perspective of the parents of both victims and survivors, parents and first responders, but focuses on the post “12-14” world, as they call it, of three families who lost their first grade children that day: the Bardens, Wheelers and Hockleys.  

“Kim and I sought to tell the story of what happens when the cameras go away,” said producer Maria Cuomo Cole, referring to the director, Kim A. Snyder.  

“It’s a big ask to ask people to see this film,” Snyder said at a panel following the screening.  

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Rep. David Price, vice chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, was part of the panel as well. “I don’t see how anyone can see the film and not be affected and understand … the depth of each loss,” the North Carolina Democrat said.  

He emphasized that the issue of gun violence isn’t going away, and Democrats will continue to push legislation to address it, particularly enhanced background checks.  

“Believe me, it’ll be a national issue, front and center, in the presidential race,” he said.  

This isn’t the first time this particular film had a serendipitous screening. On June 23, it showed as part of the AFI Docs Film Festival in Washington, the day Democrats ended a dramatic sit-in on the House floor to call attention to Congress’ position on legislation designed to curb gun violence.  

The filmmakers are planning another screening, this one on Capitol Hill, after lawmakers return from their summer recess.

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