Directed by Laura Farber
We Are Columbine never once mentions the names of the perpetrators of the event which so loaded the term “Columbine.” The documentary, directed by one of the survivors, instead focuses on the community and several of the students, all freshmen at the time, who were there during the shooting on April 20, 1999. The modest documentary relives elements of that traumatic day but then focuses much more on the aftermath, on the way the media exploited the shooting, on the community’s recovery and the good will of neighboring communities, and then perhaps most importantly on the individual steps to recovery taken by those who lived through the event.
Right up top one of the women interviewed, Amy, explains how weary she is of talking to anyone, let alone on camera, about that day. She’s worried of being exploited, and this being a documentary it seems pretty clear this could be yet another example of a true crime kind of movie that ignores the humans behind a tragedy and focuses on the more sensational aspect. But this is very much not that, and the inclusion of Amy’s concerns up top lets us know that this will be a thoughtful approach to something that has perhaps been unfairly commandeered by the broader world.
The term “Columbine” is so damn heavy, and it’s so easy to forget that this is just a school, one still up and running, and that kids continue to filter in and out through the years. It’s unfair that the school and community should be defined by this single event, but because the media loves its violence (and I suppose people from afar as well), the event is continually brought up to perpetuate ideas, theories and agendas and ignores the nuances that accompany anything and everything in life.
One man interviewed was a soccer player at the time, and he recalls seeing news reports that strongly suggested the two shooters were bullied by the school’s athletes. Then maybe you recall how Marilyn Manson and violent video games were blamed for their actions. The community then might struggle to move forward when they are being blamed for that which they were the victims of.
The documentary spends a lot of time chronicling this aftermath, understandably I suppose since there is a lot of aftermath. It’s a moment that lasted a few hours but with devastating consequences.
It’s not even just the shooting but so too the immediate swarm of news cameras to capture the event and even follow students to nearby hangout spots in hopes of grabbing an interview. It’s rather disturbing, but it’s not unexpected.
And the way this documentary lays this all out, it feels almost surreal that this is the common reaction to such events. The shooters are often plastered all over the media, their names, images and possible manifestos along with them. They are given the attention they often sought out while so many affected are ignored (if not worse) while they are the most vulnerable.
The documentary highlights so many problems that I’m not sure where to begin, but it handles them with skill and segues into the personal stories of several of the survivors. They tell us about coping, PTSD and the ways in which they’ve attempted to come to peace with what happened that day. One of them, now a nurse, is quite candid in how her need to help others may have come from the fear she felt that day. Another, in a surprisingly wholesome, endearing moment reveals to us that he accepted an offer to return to Columbine as a teacher and soccer coach.
The lasting image of this movie is of these survivors moving forward, maybe not putting the event behind them entirely but nevertheless living their lives. They have families, homes and communities of which they are a part, and the movie, through their stories, suggests a broader portrait of a wounded community thriving once again.
I’m having a hard time putting into words just how moving I thought this documentary was. I’ve got to admit that I only watched it because of my own morbid, sensationalist fascination with the shooting (just as with other notable incidents throughout history like the Kennedy Assassination, the Tate-Labianca murders, September 11th, and more) and because it popped up on Amazon Prime. I didn’t expect too much only because I had never heard of this particular film, and yet it’s one of the more moving films I’ve watched all year. It subverts what you might expect and goes against what is now a pretty damn thick wave of true crime documentaries, miniseries and podcasts. There is so much content out there about true violence, the troubled people behind it and the glorified dead.
But We Are Columbine seeks to (successfully) take back control of its own identity, to give you insight into this community, the people and culture. It’s a reminder that this isn’t a statistic or a warning but a place with real people who endured something and came out the other side. They are not to be defined by what happened to them, they are not to be defined by their worst day.
[steps off soap box] But seriously, a wonderful, tender film with honest, vulnerable, strong people.
Up Next: Fury (1936), Freaks (1932), Tomorrowland (2015)