×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Playing Columbine

While it raises far more questions that it can answer, pic serves as an impressively nuanced call for games to be taken more seriously, and it could find a healthy fest and homevideo reception from the gaming community and beyond.

With:
With: Peter Baxter, Ian Bogost, Brian Flemming, Tracy Fullerton, Joel Kornek, David Kociemba, Jack Thompson.

The ongoing debate over representations of violence in videogames is the immediate focus of “Playing Columbine,” Danny Ledonne’s gripping, troublemaking docu about the reaction to his videogame re-creation of the Columbine High School massacre. But the film goes much further, ultimately tying questions of propriety and censorship into a larger discussion of the development of videogames as a form of expressive art. While it raises far more questions than it can answer, pic serves as an impressively nuanced call for games to be taken more seriously, and it could find a healthy fest and homevideo reception from the gaming community and beyond.

A Colorado high school student at the time of the Columbine shootings, Ledonne used his own complicated feelings about the incident as inspiration for “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!” a cartoonish yet exhaustively researched online videogame that he released anonymously as a free download in 2005. In the game, players assume the identity of one of the two killers, Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, and are then set free to wreak havoc (or not) on the titular high school.

Reactions were predictably extreme, and Ledonne was soon outed as the game’s creator and subjected to a deluge of outraged newspaper editorials and hate mail, both of which increased even further when a Montreal school shooter was revealed to be a fan of the game.

Yet what the film makes clear is that the game, while undeniably offensive, had far deeper artistic intentions than mere shock value — a key fact lost on most of the game’s critics, few of whom bothered to actually play it. Of those who did, many came to consider it something of a watershed for the medium. The Slamdance Film Festival grand jury even attempted to give the game a special documentary prize in 2007, sparking yet another series of controversies.

Ledonne’s game has antecedents in other media, the most obvious being the caustic satire of punk bands like the Dead Kennedys, but one could also draw parallels with the cinema of Michael Haneke, in which the audience is implicated in the often horrific actions occurring onscreen. (The game’s twist is that, in addition to empathizing with the killers, players are ultimately made to feel guilty for what they’ve done.) But whether one finds Ledonne’s game intriguing or revolting is ultimately less important than the notion that he should be afforded the same freedom to explore the incident as any other visual artist.

Doc shows an admirable lack of self-justification or self-congratulation, and Ledonne himself mostly stays out of the picture. Instead, the floor is ceded to an impressively wide swath of perspectives — from game designers, academics, politicians, filmmakers and school-shooting survivors — with ample and mostly respectful time allotted to the game’s critics (though Ledonne can’t resist taking a few potshots at Jack Thompson, the tireless wannabe Will Hays of the videogame world).

At times, the film gets too caught up in issues of imitative violence that, while relevant, are simply less intriguing than the baby steps young designers are taking to expand the boundaries of games.

Technically, the film shows its limitations in a number of areas (sound is particularly rough), and could probably have stood another pass through the editing room, though such shortcomings hardly detract from the overall impact. Well-integrated clips from a variety of videogames, films and newscasts testify to extensive research.

Playing Columbine

Production: An Emberwilde production. Produced, directed, written, edited by Danny Ledonne.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Cory Antiel, Aaron Bagwell, Roberto Bentivegna, Ballard C. Boyd, Andrew Brinkhaus, Daphne Dragona, Nick Hartanto, Bryan Hayes, Natasha Klauss, Phil Klucsarits, Torrance Maurer, Sam Roden, Thomas Torrey, Vince Yim; music, Antiel, Josh McKnight; sound, Antiel. Reviewed at AFI Los Angeles Film Festival (competing), Nov. 8, 2008. Running time: 94 MIN.

With: With: Peter Baxter, Ian Bogost, Brian Flemming, Tracy Fullerton, Joel Kornek, David Kociemba, Jack Thompson.

More Film

  • Beatriz Bodegas on Netflix Original: ‘Who

    ‘Who Would You Take to a Desert Island?’ Producer on New Spanish Netflix Original

    BARCELONA – “Who Would You Take to a Desert Island?” is the second directorial outing from Spain’s Jota Linares (“Animales sin collar”) a Netflix Original premiering on Friday, March 22 in competition at the Malaga Spanish Language Film Festival. Starring María Pedraza, Jaime Lorente, Pol Monen and Andrea Ros, the film is the movie adaptation [...]

  • Beijing Festival Unveils 'Max Max,' 'Bourne'

    Beijing Festival Unveils 'Max Max,' 'Bourne,' Kurosawa Screening Series

    The upcoming Beijing International Film Festival will give space to high profile Hollywood franchise movies with screenings of all films in both the “Mad Max” and “Bourne Identity” series. Classic Hollywood fare will also feature prominently in a line-up that, as usual, features an eclectic grab bag of titles. The local government-backed festival opens April [...]

  • J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church

    SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius'

    Like 8mm films of 1960s “happenings” or videos of 1970s performance art, “J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius” chronicles a cultural footnote that perhaps should be filed under the heading You Had to Be There. The satirical-absurdist “religion” founded by some Texans actually caught fire among hipsters in the 1980s, influencing some [...]

  • 'Roll Red Roll' Review: Piercing Documentary

    Film Review: 'Roll Red Roll'

    “Roll Red Roll” is a piercingly relevant and disturbing documentary about an infamous high school rape case that took place in Steubenville, Ohio (pop. 18,600), on Aug. 11, 2012. Steubenville, the sort of Friday-night-lights small town that boasts signs that read “Kick off for Jesus,” is a place that’s good at keeping secrets. When the [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild, Hollywood Agents Negotiate With Deadline Looming

    The Writers Guild of America and Hollywood agents have held a sixth negotiating session with a deadline for a new deal 16 days away — and it’s uncertain whether progress is being made. The Association of Talent Agents made counter-proposals at Thursday’s session that contain provisions for more accountability and transparency by agencies for clients [...]

  • Fox Layoffs

    Fox Layoffs Leave Staffers Stunned and Saddened

    Fox employees knew this day was coming. For over a year, the men and women who work at the Century City lot have talked of little else but severance packages and job searches. They knew that when Disney wrapped up its $71.3 billion acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox’s film and television assets, thousands [...]

  • Alan Horn Disney

    Disney Clarifies Film Leadership After Harrowing Day of Fox Layoffs

    Following the dismissal of top executives in distribution, marketing and strategy on Thursday, new 20th Century Fox owner Disney has clarified its new top leadership. Five distinct Fox labels and a portion of their leadership have been welcomed into the Disney fold, the company said. This includes Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Family, Fox Searchlight Pictures, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content