Film: Sundance Film Festival
Director Stephanie Soechtig and producer Katie Couric take aim at the rhetoric of fear and the politics of paranoia surrounding firearm regulation in the U.S.
By Katherine Monk
PARK CITY, UT — The explosive topic of gun control isn’t just at the heart of two documentaries here at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s an issue that’s seeped into the very fabric of the Sundance vibe.
For the first time ever, attendees must undergo a security check before entering a theatre. Bags are screened, coats must be unzipped and open — and they aren’t just checking for recording devices.
According to organizers, the festival didn’t receive any specific threat to mandate the new policy. It’s just a new measure to keep up with the new American reality, where mass shootings are almost commonplace and ordinary citizens are at risk of a violent death at the hands of a gun-toting stranger.
It’s a fact that haunts and conflicts the American psyche, with a powerful gun lobby spouting Second Amendment rights on one side, and grieving family members begging for more regulation on the other. Yet, lost in the endless sea of rhetoric are the facts, which is why Stephanie Soechtig’s documentary, Under the Gun, may be one of the most important movies at this year’s festival.
Like Newtown, another documentary here at the festival that examines the emotional scars left by the Sandy Hook massacre, Under the Gun opens with personal testimony. Mark Barden, the father of slain seven-year-old Daniel Barden, talks about that day in December three years ago when everything in his life changed.
From there, we meet other grieving parents and hear their stories of loss — and every one of them is as heartbreaking as the next, whether it’s a father who lost a daughter at Aurora or a parent who lost a son to a random shooter spraying bullets from his car window.
The testimony is so compelling, it’s hard to comprehend why anyone would object to laws that protect the public from gun violence — but that’s where Under the Gun really separates itself from the pack. It brings all this personal tragedy into a broader context that touches on all sides of the issue with laser-targeted clarity.
Using a straight-up, newsy style aided by Katie Couric’s narration, Soechtig’s film includes interviews with gun enthusiasts, legislators, activists and survivors such as Gabrielle Giffords, the U.S. Representative who was shot point-blank in front of a Tucson Safeway store. Giffords and her astronaut husband Mark Kelly were in Park City for the premiere, and their organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, is credited as one of the film’s partners — a fact that’s already prompted rants in some circles, not to mention predictable accusations of bias.
And make no mistake. Under the Gun is biased. Its sole purpose is to make a case for gun control. But it doesn’t try to conceal its argument. It wears it on its hip as it builds a case the way any lawyer would, with poignant testimony and a whack of stats, such as the one that opens the film: “Before this film is over, 22 people will be shot.”
It’s a sobering opening salvo, but the film’s data only grows more damning. For instance, there are more gun shops in the U.S. than there are McDonalds and Starbucks combined. Gun violence is the second leading cause of death among children aged 10-19, and since 1968, more Americans have died of gun violence than from all U.S. wars put together.
These are ugly numbers, but they are familiar. What’s not largely talked about is the changing mandate of the National Rifle Association from a non-political organization dedicated to improving firearm safety to becoming the most powerful and politicized lobby in the United States.
Under the Gun explores how the group’s focus changed and why. After the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Gun Control Act of 1968 with the support of the NRA —which still considered itself a sportsman’s organization, and not a lobby group.
But all that changed with new leadership and a whack of new funding from arms manufacturers who saw the NRA as their voice in Washington.
Before long, the association was pistol-whipping Congress, instilling fear into the heart of any politician who sought to restrict access to any form of firearm, even machine-guns and tactical assault weapons.
Over the past four decades, the NRA’s DC legacy includes a law that prohibits litigation against gun manufacturers, a policy that forbids the ATF (Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms) from creating an electronic database of gun sales, and the cessation of all gun-related research by the Centers for Disease Control, which saw gun-related deaths as a public health issue akin to seat belts and smoking.
One of the most shocking scenes features a tour of the ATF headquarters, where gun sales records sit on the floor in bankers boxes. Every time a law enforcement agency asks for a trace on a given weapon, an employee is forced to sift through the stacks by hand.
It looks like a scene from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil — only with fewer people, and cruder technology.
The biggest surprise is the false polarization of the whole gun issue: 84 per cent of gun owners (and 74 percent of NRA members) are actually in favour universal background checks, and most people in the U.S. feel firearms regulation makes common sense.
“The NRA pretends to speak for gun owners, when it’s actually speaking for gun manufacturers and the gun industry,” says one of Soechtig’s many experts. “They tell you the government is going to take away your guns. But that will never happen. The Supreme Court has already ruled that will never happen.”
Yet, because the NRA is so powerful and has such a well-funded megaphone, we don’t hear these voices that come from all sides of the floor. This movie includes input from Republicans and Democrats alike, ensuring it can’t be painted with a specific partisan brush or be accused of being a Michael Moore civics lecture. It’s not a post-Sandy Hook Bowling for Columbine. Under the Gun is a well-researched, articulate and highly moving message movie that dissects one of the most volatile and divisive issues in America without drawing a drop of blood.
“I wanted to try to tell this story with a holistic approach and in a way that might break through some of the ‘noise’ that has surrounded this issue for so long,” Soechtig says in her director’s statement. “The debate over guns and gun laws has always seemed like a very black and white issue, but I was very intrigued to learn that not only is there a lot of grey area but in fact common ground.”
Under the Gun screens January 30, 31 at the Sundance Film Festival. For more information, visit www.underthegunmovie.com
THE EX-PRESS, January 26, 2016