‘Parkland Rising’ Sees the Spirit of Youth Rise from the Ashes of Tragedy

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In Parkland Rising, a documentary detailing the aftermath of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, following a mass shooting on February 14th, 2018, the perpetrator is never referenced. The person responsible for the deaths of 17 of the school’s students and faculty is not named, granted any relation to the school community, or given any shape beyond the sounds of the gunshots its survivors recalled in interview. This, ultimately, serves the purpose of the documentary, avoiding the pitfalls of true crime documentary-style morbidity, tenderly accounting for the young age of its subjects – the majority of whom still children at the point of production.

Its primary objective lies in a positive outlook of not what the United States currently is, but what it could be. Parkland Rising successfully employs the unprecedented momentum of the March 2018 March for Our Lives demonstration, a mere month after the lives of Stoneman Douglas’ students changed forever. While acknowledging radical gun reform has yet to be reached, its talent in sensitivity allows for the film to leave its audience with hope for revolution in gun reform, despite its highly graphic beginning.

No mistake should be made, however – this film is wrought by trauma and dripping with grief, as the school’s students come to terms with the loss of their friends and peers. This loss, against a backdrop of mass gun ownership rife within the United States, and its unwillingness to adopt stricter gun safety measures, is a rigmarole many children at the centre of the tragedy did not expect. On top of this very adult awakening to the extent of America’s gun culture, the students are quickly expected to carry on as normal with the school syllabus, with demands to complete assignments and wear clear backpacks. These measures do very little to relieve any post-traumatic stress, as students are forced to take exams as news rolls in of further school shootings, and as one student darkly jests, he could very well be carrying a handgun in his backpack.

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Against these contradictory strivings of grief and grit demanded of them, the youthful optimism and rejection of the status quo by Parkland’s survivors shines through the cracks. One student, David Hogg, now the face of America’s growing gun control movement, defies his parents’ orders to stay at home, citing his younger sister’s loss of four friends that the National Rifle Association (NRA) forced the nation’s politicians to turn a blind eye to. The students’ focus on an alternative America, where gun ownership is, at least, as regulated as using a car, sets them apart from the headstrong, acquiescent “survivor” mentality demanded of victims of gun violence. This demand has been expected of victims since the fallout of Columbine at the turn of the millennia, a compromise that occurred before the children of Parkland were even born. Their mobilisation rests upon the idea, as one student notes, “I’m not a survivor, I’m still healing”.

Healing, in the eyes of the young, requires a resolution from the original source of trauma. This process is most clearly displayed in Parkland Rising’s most poignant, and politically charged, portrayal of Manuel Oliver — the grieving father of Joaquin Oliver— who is still very much a young man himself. While Oliver’s depiction is director Cheryl Horner McDonough’s most invaluable offering, it is, of course, an extremely difficult watch. The documentary tremendously showcases the immense contradictions of American culture and due human process in grief, as it follows Oliver’s insistence of spending his days creating public art displays that keep his son’s memory alive. While creating this art —intricate, and occasionally violent pieces that place President Trump and his connections to the NRA at its centre— watched by Joaquin’s classmates and aggressive gun advocates, Oliver understandably breaks down, but attempts to stifle his emotions.  

Naturally, the viewer would question why Manuel Oliver would place himself —metaphorically and literally— in front of the eyes of an American public so deeply and vocally divided over gun control. Moreover, it seems peculiar that he would want his grief to be shown so publicly in the immediate aftermath of his son’s murder, particularly when conservative backlash against Parkland survivors had been so vociferous. The natural response would seem to be to withdraw into the privacy many grieving families would find comfort in—particularly after a highly publicised loss. Within this, however, lies the documentary’s most heart-rending moment, where Oliver confesses that he attempts to put his grief to one side, instead facing the onslaught of pro-gun advocates and supporters of the Trump administration. His belief that his son is in Heaven is his motivation in doing so, and that “I cannot risk the chance to be with Joaquin again”.

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It is this beautifully intricate portrayal of youthful optimism that, rather paradoxically, renders the other components of Parkland Rising to appear rather shallow by lacking in political precedence. While every scene conveys essential emotion—particularly skilful in the mixture of emotions grief possesses— the portrayals of other victims of Parkland, in its apolitical approach, rather softens the narrative of how March For Our Lives gained momentum. In comparison to other documentaries on American gun culture, particularly Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, the documentary can often fall short of detailing the intricacies that allowed for the societal structures for such culture to flourish. Moore’s ability to tie the NRA’s establishment to its foundation in white supremacy (rather brilliantly displayed in this scene) leaves this rendition to pale in comparison. Parkland Rising’s constant insistence that “it isn’t about politics” relinquishes its edge to almost an advertisement for the campaign – appealing to pre-existing ideology. Moreover, it finds itself repeatedly contradicted by Manuel Oliver’s promise to be “a little less polite” to political establishment, as well as the students’ rude awakening to alt-right harassment that disregard their trauma.

Glimmers of a more cohesive narrative, however, can still be viewed within this misstep in narrative. David Hogg, who begins the documentary asserting his support for the 2nd Amendment, citing his family’s gun ownership, is an example of Parkland Rising’s quieter radicalisation. However, its display of a far-right onslaught of backlash towards Hogg, even being told directly by a protestor that the right to bear arms trumps his friends’ right to life, showcases Hogg reaching  boiling point. By the end of the documentary, Hogg and his sister celebrate a pro-NRA politician who slammed the door in their face when confronted by the pair, being “voted the fuck out” in the mid-term elections. Paired with the fact that other students wear t-shirts that say “build schools, not prisons”, a call to reform America’s prison-industrial complex, there is an untapped radicalisation within the documentary that ends up pushed to the background to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Parkland Rising needs some polishing if it wants to advance the movement it deeply cares about, and luckily for them it requires tools they already possess.

Parkland Rising is having virtual screenings across the US starting from June 5th

by Bethany Gemmell

Bethany is currently a student at The University of Edinburgh.  She has a highly embarrassing talent of being able to tell which episode of Friends she’s watching in about 15 seconds of screen-time. Bethany’s favourite scene in all of cinema is in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time. You can follow her on twitter.

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