AFI Docs: Charleston Shootings Mirror Filmmakers’ Stories of Gun Violence

WASHINGTON — When Abigail Disney was filming “The Armor of Light,” in which a Christian conservative leader reconsiders his position on gun rights, she says, “It was an unfortunate fact of life that we felt with strong certainty that there would be a shooting like this.”

She was referring to the shootings on Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C., in which nine people were killed in a rampage during a prayer meeting.

Her movie is among the titles at AFI Docs this weekend that delve into gun violence and those who are involved on both sides of the debate over the root causes and what to do about it.

The Armor of Light,” Disney’s directorial debut, screened on Saturday night. Disney was joined by one of the movie’s subjects: the Rev. Rob Schenck, above, chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance. The movie also features Lucy McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was shot and killed in 2012 outside of a convenience store by a man upset in a dispute over the playing of loud music.

In the movie, Schenck grapples with how to square a strident position on gun rights with a pro-life position in the context of his spiritual beliefs over the sanctity of life.

It’s a meeting with McBath, grieving over her son but also moving toward a career as an activist on gun violence, that helps convince him to go public with his position. The movie shows his discomfort over the alliance between the National Rifle Association and conservative evangelicals.

Disney says she had wanted to do something about gun violence for a long time, but from a different approach, one that showed the religious side of the argument. The movie shows Schenck engaged in debate with other religious leaders, some of whom argue that there is no contradiction in being pro-life and pro-gun rights because of the need to protect innocent people in threatening situations.

“Every time there is an incident like this [in Charleston] you see how much the dynamics are broken,” Disney says, noting that the tendency after such a tragedy has been for advocates on both sides to “just push back harder.” She hopes that her movie shows a “respectful and open and honest” conversation over the problem.

She is on the other side of the political spectrum from the religious right, but she had been seeking representatives who could talk about positions that were, in her words, “pro-life” and “pro-gun.” Schenck took her call, and after meeting him she found that he had been questioning the response to gun violence.

Although the focus of the movie is on Schenck and his shift in positions, she says she is not working with any anti-gun violence advocacy groups to promote it.

“Because this is so sensitive, and emotions are so high and polarized, I really wanted to work in a way that was not advocacy oriented,” she says. “The minute you descend into that tussle, there is no winning.”

Nevertheless, the film does show the extent to which the position of the NRA has influenced the fervor of the religious right. Disney says, “If this film doesn’t reach people at the center, what are we going to do to change this dynamic?”

Another movie screened there, “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets,” centers on the case of Jordan Davis, delving into “stand your ground” laws and the issue of race. The shooter, white middle-aged software developer Michael Dunn, claimed self-defense, but was convicted of first degree murder last year and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“I think what has become apparent is that the DNA of what happened in ‘3 1/2 Minutes’ is present in all these other cases, and of course what happened on Wednesday,” says director Marc Silver. “The root of that is the same thing.”

Silver says his original perception of the shooting was that Dunn “through his own kind of naivety and ignorance toward his own racism, he came to represent almost a whole part of America that is also naive to their racism. That is one of the reasons why we focused on this particular story.”

Dunn, through his lawyer, refused to be interviewed, but the movie features video of the trial, as well as Dunn’s phone calls from prison to his fiancee. His case began to be known in the media as the “loud music” trial.

Silver adds, “I think my perception [of what happened] always remained the same, but about 2/3 of the way through the edit, then Ferguson happened. It’s not that we changed the film in any way. But the way that the film spoke back to us, it just resonated differently. So it wasn’t that my perspective changed, it was just that the film itself meant something deeper.”

Disney says when she first heard about the Charleston shootings, she first felt a “sickening familiarity,” but also a “depressing amount of confidence that there will be another incident.”

She is planning to screen the movie at churches and communities where evangelicals are prominent, with the hope that it will at least inspire more respectful and honest conversation. She says she has heard from ministers who have told her that they agree with Schenck, but fear that speaking out will jeopardize their careers.

“There are people on both sides with the best intentions,” Disney says, noting that debate often devolves into accusations on one side of trying to take away guns, and of murderous racism on the other. In fact, the extremists are just a “tiny percentage.”

She says, “We all need to take a deep breath and a step from the froth of this discourse and have a better conversation about our values.”

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