“I don’t think that the Second Amendment is ever going to get changed,” said U.S. documentary filmmaker Todd Chandler at Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival during an online Q&A on Sunday, admitting it’s an intense time to be addressing such questions just before the election. His film “Bulletproof” is screening at the festival.
“I don’t think I felt hopeful or hopeless [when making this film], I felt like I hopefully succeeded in making something that can at least prompt some questioning. I feel cautiously hopeful of some small, small shift away from the impending fascism,” he added.
In “Bulletproof,” shown at the Czech event after its premiere at Hot Docs in Canada, where it won the award for the Emerging International Filmmaker, Chandler shows U.S. society in the era of school shootings. Traveling all over the country, from Texas, Las Vegas, New York, Chicago to Silicon Valley in California and rural Missouri, he visited schools and talked to people trying to protect their students, in any way they can.
“You might go to a place like Texas or even just a particular area where people tend to be a bit further on the right and the culture is a bit more pro-gun, then you can travel four, five hours to Austin and it might be totally different. Our culture is varied and what might be considered normal in one part, might be considered very extreme in another,” he told the audience.
Describing his preference for “letting a moment play out,” Chandler observed that with a subject matter that’s so contentious, people bring their own personal opinions to the film.
“It’s very intentional that ‘Bulletproof’ is not about my perspective,” he said. “These questions about gun violence are present across the country, but when we are thinking about how to prevent that, are we talking about how to literally stop bullets or about having a cultural shift so that this kind of violence is no longer an issue?,” he wondered. “Do I want to see guns in the world? No. I wish there were no guns. But the United States is a culture rooted in violence. The most difficult question is how do you undo centuries of masculinist, white-suprematist, capitalist violence in a country that was shaped by these forces.”
Crediting localized, grass-roots movements and the Black Lives Matter with sparking a change, Chandler was also inspired by his own students at Brooklyn College in New York.
“About five years ago there was a conversation in my class about a school shooting. They talked a lot about racialized violence, about how these mass shootings are a product of white entitlement, mostly male. There is no way to singularly express why these things happen, but they were implying there is something cultural there,” he told Variety during the Q&A.
“They talked about how it was to grow up in the city, as mostly Black and Latino young people, with the police in schools and metal detectors, being treated as if they were criminals. It opened up space for me to think about this police logic and how it has overtaken so many of our social institutions and public spaces.”
While the work of Frederick Wiseman was certainly an influence, Chandler said, he also mentioned Christopher Harris, an experimental filmmaker based in Iowa, and Harun Farocki’s “How to Live in the FRG” as crucial in getting “Bulletproof” made.
“It made me think very differently about what I filmed. We have lockdown drills, teachers stepping up to a firing range with guns, the security related things but also students at a parade or a basketball practice. I began to see these things less as contrasts and more as living in the same space. These are rituals that are deeply American,” he said, mentioning that his was never going to be a character-driven film.
“To me, the way it all fit together was this idea of performance and choreographies of bodies and space. I started to think about the film as a fractured and incomplete ethnography. What can we learn about a culture by looking at its rituals? If we look at the ones happening in and around schools, what can this tell us?”
Calling his observational documentary a “meditation on fear,” Chandler wanted to show how people are responding to it as well.
“So many of these responses are driven by the fear of the unknown. That unknown becomes bigger and bigger, and people respond in bigger and bigger ways,” he said, also referring to a woman who decided to make bulletproof hoodies after witnessing a neighborhood shooting [Vy Tran’s Wonder Hoodie].
“I tried it on and I didn’t feel safer, but my ideas about safety are not necessarily about being protected from bullets. Although the woman who started that company wanted to protect people from police violence. And as a white man in this country, I don’t necessarily have to worry about that.”