Nightline producers Jake Lefferman and Emily Taguchi keep a bag packed at all times, ready to respond to breaking news. This being the United States, where mass shootings occur with alarming frequency, their destination is often a major crime scene. Like Pittsburgh in October 2018, site of a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue that left 11 dead, or El Paso, Texas earlier this year where a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart.
“In all of these situations we have that really difficult job of having to go into a community in one of their hardest, darkest moments,” Lefferman tells Deadline. “And then…the news cycle moves on. People forget, but for that community the wounds of what happened really stay forever.”
On Valentine’s Day 2018 news broke of a devastating shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Once on the ground, Lefferman and Taguchi met with teenagers who survived the attack and grieving parents of the victims. They realized this time the news cycle was not going to move on, at least not so quickly. Parkland was different.
“As soon as we sat down with the students and these families we saw that this was a conversation that wasn’t going away and that there was definitely a lot of reason to stay there and pursue something that was a long-form opportunity,” Lefferman recalls. “It was really an organic kind of shift. There wasn’t an exact moment where we decided we needed to make a documentary.”
The documentary they made, After Parkland, opens in theaters today. It won Best Documentary at the just-completed Key West Film Festival and has qualified for Oscar consideration this year as Best Documentary Feature.
The purpose of the film is not so much to recount the shocking incident itself—17 people killed by a former student—but what happened afterwards.
“We wanted to really be able to explore what it means when something so horrific happens and there’s a void in your life all of a sudden,” Taguchi explains. “How do you take the steps forward and start to find meaning? What does that new normalcy look like? And these are really hard questions.”
For many of the students and families, meaning came in the form of activism. Survivors David Hogg, Victoria Gonzalez and Sam Zeif were among the MSD students who became remarkably poised and articulate advocates for gun control.
“This situation threw all of us into adulthood when we didn’t realize it was happening,” Gonzalez observes. “There are kids who really understand the impact [of the shooting] and have allowed themselves to transform their outlook on the world.”
“I think there’s a lot of reasons we were the victims to start some type of wave [of activism],” Zeif notes. “For one, Columbine was 20 years ago and that was a completely different time than today…It wasn’t able to move without social media like it is today. For Sandy Hook 12 years later, another tragedy but still just [young] children and unable to unify successfully. For us, it’s a pretty big school—3,200 kids who every single day come into the exact same place who’ve all experienced the same thing and are feeling the same feeling, and that’s really powerful when you have that kind of impact and that type of number.”
The outspoken students faced an ugly backlash, with some conspiracy theorists claiming the high schoolers were in fact “crisis actors” hired to “play” survivors.
“There’s some scenes early on [in After Parkland] where David Hogg is reading Twitter and getting some really negative feedback, and accusations of being an actor…So, it was important for us to highlight that,” Lefferman notes. “What I think comes out in the film is the fact that all of these students were able to rise above that hate, and really focus on solutions, and focus on how can we bring people together to have productive dialogue around this issue.”
Gonzalez’ boyfriend, Joaquin Oliver, was one of the MSD students killed that Valentine’s Day.
“We were best friends from the moment we met. We met and we said, ‘You’re my person.’ That was it,” she recalls. “So everything I do now, there’s always a piece of him with me, no matter what. No matter where I look he’s there…I have to keep him alive as long as I can.”
She continues, “I try to remind people of the personal side of it. That’s not all about the politics, of course. There needs to be things put in place to prevent this. But you need to first understand what these people are going through in order to take correct action…I keep talking about empathy. It’s so important to step into someone else’s shoes and get a feel for it, or as much as you can before you want to say something about it.”
That speaks to the point of After Parkland, Lefferman says.
“It wasn’t about making a political film,” he maintains. “Yes, this is a politicized issue. But for us, it was always focused on the shared humanity that we saw while we were down there…Our hope is that wherever you sit on the political spectrum, when you watch our film, you can empathize with what these families have gone through, that maybe you can see part of yourself in their experience.”
Lefferman will be in New York for a Q&A tonight with Parkland suvivors. Taguchi is in LA for a Q&A with the parents of Joaquin Oliver, survivor Brooke Harrison and others.
“We’re really grateful to continue to have the support of the families,” Taguchi tells Deadline. “A lot of times when we were visiting with them, we were afraid of re-traumatizing them, both because what they went through is so incredibly traumatic, but also they’re very, very young. But it was really wonderful to hear out of Brooke Harrison’s mouth, ‘Hey, you know what, talking is underrated.’ Or her dad who said to us fairly early on, ‘Each time you come, you’re getting the poison out.’”