How to Become the Filmmaker Who Tells the Big Stories
Kim A. Snyder was in Florida when the students from the Parkland mass shooting showed up at the capitol. How did she become the filmmaker to tell their story?
In documentary filmmaking, you hear a lot about access. If you see something big being reported on TV, you probably don’t have the access you need to tell that story. Right? Wrong.
As filmmaker Kim A. Snyder explained to No Film School before the premiere of Us Kids at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, lack of access should not keep you from telling your story. Courage and trust are the two most important traits that you need to tell a big story. And commitment.
Snyder's film is a great meta examination for filmmakers: we not only watch the story of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and their subsequent March for Our Lives movement but also watch as they navigate the role of media in their lives along the way.
Snyder sat down with No Film School to talk about her process getting access to and documenting this coming-of-age story about youth trying to change the world.
How to start following a story
NFS: You've worked with youth before in school shootings as a topic in your film Newtown. For Us Kids, at what point did you decide to make this film?
Snyder: It was some amount of happenstance. I had made Newtown in 2016 and it premiered at Sundance. I was very passionate about the issue after having spent three years building relationships, that I still have today, with those folks.
But sadly, shootings continued. I had no motivation to follow Pulse or Vegas. And then, almost coincidentally, I was working on an unrelated project in Tallahassee, Florida with the mayor at the time. I was in Florida when Parkland happened. And I was on the steps of the Capitol in Tallahassee with the mayor when all of these students from Parkland came up in busloads and were joined by other local students. That was the birth of the movement. There I was, with a camera. So I filmed that day. And then I thought, I have to do this. I realized that I also, the one thing I wasn't done with was the idea of traumatized youth.
I decided the country really didn't understand the cost and the fallout of a nation of traumatized youth. And when [Parkland] happened, it was like a match that was lit on a bed of gasoline. There were kids all over the country who were scared, traumatized, and angry. When Parkland happened, these embodied a whole nation of kids. It wasn't obviously just them, and it was not just kids in the mass shootings, which account for less than 2%. It was kids all over in inner cities who endure trauma on a daily basis from gun violence.
"That was the birth of the movement. There I was, with a camera."
NFS: What was your process to reach out to the kids involved in Parkland about being subjects in the documentary, especially knowing they are being approached by a lot of people in the media?
Snyder: After Tallahassee, I went to Parkland that next day. Because of Newtown, there was a built-in trust that I knew something about this terrain. And I began to reach out carefully to some contacts to find people who might find it cathartic to talk. It was a process of months of getting to know certain families. Some of them are not main characters in the film, but it was a lot of development during the first month or two, of trying to reach out and learn about some of the youth that were affected.
And in the beginning, it was a number of youth that were in one of the classrooms. So, there was this idea of trauma. It wasn't until some months later that some of the more notable founders of the March for Our Lives movement came to know about my work. Before the march, some folks who knew who I was said this is a very trustworthy documentarian on the subject. And they gave me a lot of special access to that march. And then after that was done, the kids said, “We're just starting.” After pulling off the largest protest in history since the Vietnam era, they decided they were going to take off across the country to 50 places for the summer. Literally the day before they left, the kids called and said, “We think we want you to be the crew to with us.”
In the meantime, I met Sam [Fuentes] and had been following her. She had a slightly different trajectory because of having been shot and working through a lot of trauma. With the Road to Change tour, we watched the kids try to move through the country and have conversations and get people to register to vote and all the things that they were aiming to do. And then there was part three, which was after that tour was over and they saw that I was in for the long haul. Really it wasn't until then that I developed much deeper understanding and relationships. We were shooting up until Thanksgiving, and then learned we were in Sundance.
How to film people being inundated by media coverage already
Snyder: On the Road to Change tour, they had an enormous amount of local press everywhere they went. And as you can see in the film, it was exhausting. They were dealing with trauma and I felt reluctant to put any more. I needed them to see me not as media. I needed them to be collaborators. I would spend time off-camera getting their input on what this could be. I never went to Emma [Gonzalez] or David [Hogg] and said, “Can I get an interview with you at the end of the day?” Because I knew that there was no way they could avoid delivering another news hit or another press hit. So, I never did the interviews like that during the summer. It was like following the Rolling Stones or something back in the day and just did it verite.
And then after it ended was when I started to give them a little momentum. I let them know that we could do something really remarkable here but we need to go deeper. And that's when I started developing more trust and friendship with them, starting in the fall of a year ago, and intermittently getting deeper thoughts. Sam was kind of continuous through the whole thing. And many others, even if they aren’t in the finished film, formed the movie.
"So you rely on good verite shooters that can work a lot with natural light and be quick on their feet."
Choices: subject over aesthetics, coming-of-age over issues
Snyder: I wanted the kids to become familiar with my crew. It was small. I don't shoot myself. It would be me, a cameraperson, and sound. And the more the kids got to know those faces, the more they trusted. There were many times that you make choices not to worry so much about the aesthetic and lighting and stuff because I knew every time they had a mainstream media interview, that set up put them in another headset.
So, you rely on good verite shooters that can work a lot with natural light and be quick on their feet. You're following kids and they're quick. Even though the story had a lot of media play, it wasn’t always done on their terms. It was like they were turned into these little adult spokespeople. They wanted to be humanized. They wanted, and I wanted, to tell a story that was a coming of age story more than an issue story. I wanted people to feel and remember what it's like to be 17. I wanted to show the debates about if you put the peanut butter on both sides of the bread that you talk about in 11th, 12th grade. So the viewer could put themselves back in that time, remember that same summer, but also [imagining] being traumatized deeply by having seen your friend murdered. And then trying to change the world and prevent this from happening again. I was in awe constantly of their resilience and their courage and their intelligence and dedication.
Becoming the right filmmaker to tell a story
Snyder: I think it's about pivoting. It's about flexibility and open-mindedness. You may think, documentary is unscripted, that's why it's non-fiction. All the great films may have started to be one thing and then took you in another direction. If you remain rigid, you may end up with the least interesting film. You have to be willing to pivot in terms of character, in terms of theme, in terms of everything.
Whether to go for a story or not is a combination of instincts, learning to trust your instinct. Some of its practical, do I really have access? Can I? But at the same time, don't be afraid. This was a big media story when I did Newtown. I thought it was like a David and Goliath scene. How am I ever going to cut through this shitstorm of media from all over the world? But if you have a vision and you build trust, you just put blinders on. [Not having access] shouldn't prevent you.
Sometimes, it means your instinct led you to try something and you realize that you should cut bait for any number of those reasons. So, I don't think it's unlike other decision making in life. You have to go with your gut and in your passion. If it feels like I can't let go of this, I’m a dog with a bone, it kind of decides for you that I'm in now. I'm in.
"You have to be willing to pivot in terms of character, in terms of theme, in terms of everything."
Once you're in, you have to be very adaptable and flexible about character, about the direction of the movie, and what the themes are. For me, it's a process of going from close focus to pulling back. Just like when you hike up a mountain where you’ve been staring at your feet, but you stop at a place and look at the view. You have your water and you collect yourself. You have to do that with documentary along the way to get the big picture and get your bearings so you don’t get lost.
There are different kinds of films. Sometimes you make films that are investigative and there are antagonists, and the purpose is to provoke the antagonistic. I haven't tended to make as many of those movies. I love films where I build trust and I fall in love with the characters. I find them deeply interesting. Every single one of the characters in this movie I have found absolutely fascinating. If you're not curious about your characters, you're dead.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
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