‘Us Kids’ Director Kim A. Snyder on What Surprised Her Most about the Parkland Activists

     August 28, 2020

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In the 37 days following a mass shooting at their school in Parkland, Florida, the teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School organized a worldwide protest against gun violence and then moved from that straight into a nationwide bus tour to encourage people to vote against politicians that were in the pocket of the gun lobby. We’ve seen these young people in the eye of the media, but director Kim A. Snyder’s new documentary Us Kids goes behind the scenes to show the toll taken on kids who were traumatized but felt it was their duty to fight on behalf of their classmates who lost their lives.

I spoke to Snyder about the movie, which is currently making its way on a tour of drive-ins across the U.S. (click here to see when it’s coming near you). We talked about how she got embedded with the MSD kids, what surprised her the most about their journey, deciding on the right point to end this story, plans for a rollout of the movie beyond its drive-in run, and more.

How did you get embedded with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas kids?

KIM A. SNYDER: Well, it was a funny thing. I had made Newtown, which released back in 2016, and I really kind of thought I was done. That was a tough and long and worthy journey. And I was working on another project that I was developing in Florida, and the one thing after Newtown that I hadn’t really let go of was sort of the story of these kids that had really compelled me. They were first graders who had escaped from one of the rooms, and I got to know their parents. That was not a story that I… that specific story that I felt… I mean, they wanted to protect their identities, but I became friendly with some of those parents and thought about those survivor kids, and it just made me think a lot about, wow, all the hundreds of thousands of traumatized kids from gun violence, that’s something I’m not quite done with nor do I think the country really asks the question too much about what’s the cost of that.

And then I moved on, and I was working on other things, and I found myself on this shoot in Tallahassee, Florida, developing a completely different story with the mayor there. And Parkland happened while I was in Tallahassee. And there I was with the mayor on the steps of the Capitol, state Capitol, and these busloads of kids came up from Parkland and all these university kids, and it was thousands of kids demanding change from the governor. And I just was kind of… I had seen since I’ve made Newtown, obviously, followed on a personal level of the other horrible mass shootings and had made relationships with people in Newtown and knew how re-traumatizing that was. But when this happened, I thought, “Wow, these are… these kids are really understandably pissed off, and they’re… this feels different.”

us-kids-drive-in-scheduleSo I felt compelled to kind of delve into that different, very different, territory, and I very quickly decided that it needed to be a completely different kind of film that was not about collective grief and adult collective grief, and I had explored that terrain in Newtown, but this was about a movement that I felt started on the steps. I felt like it started with Emma’s speech several days later that kind of caught on and felt right away like this is one of those historic moments, like Arab Spring or… It started to feel like that. And just felt compelled like, “I’ve got to do this.”

So I went down to Parkland from Tallahassee within days of that shooting and started to… I think because of Newtown, I had some trust built in of having dealt with that subject matter and definitely felt like this isn’t… I already did Newtown. It’s not a story about a mass shooting. It’s a story following a movement sparked by kids that came out of another one of these things, but it was going to be about trauma and rage that’s translated into, ultimately into, hope. And I find it… I find it to be very hopeful, what I chronicled.

When did you feel was the right time to sort of end the movie since it’s an ongoing fight? These are young activists. When is the right moment to sort of say, “Okay, this is the point to end my story”?

SNYDER: That’s a really good question. Off the record, when you get the call from Sundance. No, I’m joking. I realize I’m joking. No, the truth of it is that it reminded me of my friends who made The Square in that I did feel there was something extremely historic and that they were in a revolution of sorts, and sure enough they’ve been very cognizant of the intersectionality of many things and are doing so much since the film stopped. I mean, I feel like it’s more relevant than ever in a post-COVID, post Black Lives Matter, but they always understood the beginning the intersectionality between gun violence and racial equality and the disproportionate toll. That’s why they took to the road. That’s why they insisted on this not just being about them or this mass shooting. That’s why it was different. And so it really was trying to capture history of a movement.

And to, I guess, to answer your question, I knew it was a long haul and would take time and would be one of those films that kind of begs the question at the end… As Cameron says, it’s… The future, it’s there in front of us, and it’s up to us to do what we want with it, and to sort of just end it with questions, which is, to me, appropriate of that age. To be 17 or 18, you don’t know where this it’s going to end up. They’re not… They’re just setting out, and they’ve just begun, and so, for me, I guess there’s a parallel with Newtown in that… very differently, but Newtown was intended not to wrap it up and have closure either. That idea was there’s no real closure to that kind of pain, either for the parents or the community.

And for these kids, their journey to start a revolution, if you will, a movement, also would have… would take me years and years to see where… But they did get so much done. I think when I did finish there, I didn’t want to date the film, but the truth of it is they got more state gun reform laws passed than had happened in many years. They had over 300 chapters of their organizational movement proliferate around the country. They got the first gun legislation, gun reform legislation, passed in the House that had happened in 20 years. That stalled in the Senate, but they got a lot done, and they got… And more than that, they got all those corporate people to pull out their sponsorship of the NRA, and now just recently we’ve seen more erosion.

And the big thing for me, too, was the turnout, what they were able to do with turning out the youth vote in the midterm, the 2018 midterms. So for me, it was important that that question be asked of… that they were calling to have morally just leaders, and they were calling on people to not think so much in partisan terms but about issues and policy and policy for young people that threatens their lives and makes them feel just scared and pissed off every day. So that felt like…

And also I see the film as more than anything as a coming of age story. So I also felt like there were… A lot of them were setting off to college, and that always feels like, “Okay, that’s a moment. That’s a big moment in a person’s life, and… when you get out of high school.” And that was true for many of the kids that I followed were in that age range.

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Image via Impact Partners

What most surprised you about filming these students and then watching their journey?

SNYDER: To be honest, I went into it thinking, “I don’t want to glorify or fetishize these kids or get…” They were getting a lot of media attention. And I didn’t really have an agenda one way or another. I just knew that I needed to follow it, partly because of what I’d done in the years before. And I think that I was struck really profoundly when I started traveling with them and Sam, because I became close to Sam and her journey. I was just struck by… trying to put this the right way… their… how much I was learning from them. And humbled. I was really humbled. I was like, “Wow, they know their stuff.”

I mean, these were kids that when we were driving cross country would study on the bus of the gun laws in the next state we were rolling into. They knew everything. And they’d go to bed when they needed to get to bed. They weren’t feeling great. Part of the movie shows the toll it took and the sacrifices that these were… They were really threatened, and they were scared at times. And I thought, “Wow, what was I doing the summer of my junior or senior year?”

So I felt like this just deep… And Sam getting up again and again. I felt so respectful and humbled by their resilience. And when they talk to those people in Texas, and they’re just so patient. And I don’t know. I guess it’s part of me felt like it reminded me of being 17 again and some of the qualities that are so hopeful and…

And I learned a lot from them about the whole media part. They’re just so media savvy and understandably wary. That comes out in the film, too. And so I think it was like they were… They’re just such quick learners, and maybe some of the differences of having grown up on the internet, the connections they make… Just I think a lot of the stuff that they… that that generation gets a lot of bad rep for, I was seeing the flip side and seeing it in a different, new way. Sometimes people say, “Well, they don’t, they don’t know intimacy,” or, “They just connect online.” And then you just sort of see this power with which they’re able to use words, and the power with which they’re able to motivate people through… When Cameron says, “It was like the world was a video game, and we had the codes.” And I knew I didn’t know the codes, so I felt like I drank the Kool-Aid, kind of. I was like, “Wow.”

And I didn’t think it was just these kids, these… You have to make choices about which kids you’re going to focus more on, and of course a couple of them like Emma had gotten a lot of notoriety, but there were so many kids. That little blonde in Sioux City, Langston. I just kept getting blown away by all these kids that were so motivated, so intelligent in the way they were going about just… Just impressed by… I guess I just kept feeling like I understood. I so understood their rage and their frustration at the adult world of like, “Are you kidding me? What are you not understanding here?” And I always use this analogy that they seemed like kids in a divorced family or something that just not nothing’s going anywhere. It’s like people fighting, they’re in the backseat of the car, but they don’t really… they’re not old enough to drive it. And then they realize that the parents are drunk or they’re lost, and they’re going to die if they don’t take the wheel, if we don’t figure this out.

So it felt very… I look at them as that this is survival for them. They are scared, and it’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable that they watched their friends die in front of them. None of it was acceptable. And the rage was something I really, really understood and respected.

I feel like these kids at Parkland and the peers that they’re talking to when they go on their trip, they’ve grown up with school shooting drills. They’ve grown up in this environment. And so did you feel like because they grew up in a different landscape where nothing had been solved except these drills, which wasn’t a solution at all, do you think that impacted them?

SNYDER: Yeah, I think it’s part of what I was saying. It’s like a world around them of people who have become inured, have become numb. And they’re not numb. They’re scared, because they… It’s a very visceral thing. I knew kids from the work I did on Newtown three towns over in Connecticut who had anxiety disorders from that. So the ripple effects, whether it be in inner city Milwaukee with Bria, that, again, is what I really thought about is the hundreds of thousands of kids just traumatized and scared.

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Image via Impact Partners

These are some people they know or that happened in their town or their state or their neighborhood. So I think they were very woke to the issue, looking at an adult population just saying, “What are you not getting about this?” It’s like when Emma says, “You’re either going to say thoughts and prayers… We know what’s going to happen. This has happened over and over. This is insanity.” And that was the whole essence of her We Call BS speech. It’s like this is just bullshit. How inept are you that you’re not doing anything about this for kids, that you’re not changing anything, you’re not… Nothing’s getting done here, so we have to do it. We have to figure out something else.

Obviously COVID has changed the rollout for this movie, with it now playing in special drive-in screenings. Can you talk a little bit about any home release plans the film has to reach a wider audience?

SNYDER: Yes. We’re working hard on it, and I think like a lot of people coming out of the Class of Sundance 2020, our heads are all spinning. Everybody’s head in this business is spinning. We are in the sort of final conversations about releasing this, but we will be rolling this out through October in more than drive-ins, which we can announce that soon, I think, and with a larger release that will be happening. I can’t give you dates and specificity, but we felt we didn’t want to wait to… The idea of this tour was to be in partnership with March for our Lives and the movement, since they were doing this nine-city thing. And we said, “You know what? We’re just, we’re going to do this thing with drive-ins.”

And I had done some drive-ins with some festivals and just felt it’s COVID safe, this feels cool. And the truth of it is that young people are really responding well to it, and I just don’t want it… To be honest, I don’t want to delay that demand and that hunger by a lot of young people, including the ones in my film, to make good use of this in this most critical period of the next eight weeks.

It’s timely, it’s important, and we’re going to be… My spirit is like the kids. Those kids, in 37 days, they figured out from the day of that shooting how to get a million people to Washington and then millions more across the entire country, in every city and on five continents. They did that with social media. And, yes, did they have some major cultural influencers and powerful people step up and write them checks to help put on that stage? Of course they did, but they really did it. I mean, they really did do it themselves, through the power of social media to a large extent. And I feel that with them standing with me, we will do the same thing.

I don’t really want to go on record sounding too self-aggrandizing, but it’s what’s… It’s not surprising me. I’m just really heartened that… I was interviewed by an 11-year-old the other day. From 11 to 30, every kid is just like, “Wow,” like, “This really speaks to what we’re feeling, and everyone has to see this.” And so I feel like I have a moral obligation to those kids that I work with and so many other kids around the country to get this out and… in whatever way it needs to happen.

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