After tragedy struck Parkland, Fla., in early 2018, the young survivors of the mass shooting felt they had no other choice but to stand up and fight for their rights. They were just kids, but the students banded together and fell into an unexpected calling as youth activists.
A month after 17 lives were lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, they pulled off the largest youth protest in American history with March for Our Lives, a student-led demonstration in support of legislation to prevent gun violence, which captured the attention of Hollywood A-listers and millions of people around the world. That summer, the activists embarked on a tour around the country, as their movement grew to tackle much more than gun reform.
The documentary, “Us Kids” — from filmmaker Kim A. Snyder, who directed the Peabody Award-winning doc “Newtown” in 2016 — follows the young activists, as they spread their movement across the country, inspiring others to speak up against racial injustice, a growing public health crisis and political change.
“It wasn’t planned as an agenda in that type of way,” Snyder tells Variety. “It was meant to be a coming-of-age story, more than anything else. It was never a film meant to be about Parkland or the shooting or even gun reform. That is just the issue that sparked them. I was really just going in a neutral way to tell a story about a group of kids who I perceived as really courageous and being traumatized and understandably angry about the deaths of their friends.”
When the film debuted at Sundance in Jan. 2020, the COVID-19 crisis had not hit the United States, the election was relatively far off and movie theaters were still open.
As the world began to rapidly change, it became clear to Snyder that “Us Kids” could not have a traditional rollout. It also became increasingly evident that the film could have profound impact on young audiences who so desperately want their voices to be heard, as their worlds are filled with ever-growing uncertainty during a pandemic and an election year.
“I didn’t perceive it so much as a political piece,” Snyder says. “And I didn’t understand how it might be perceived that way as the times changed around it.”
The documentary was filmed during the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, which ended up having the largest youth voter turnout in history. Now, heading into a presidential election, the subjects of the film have set an even bigger goal to encourage their peers to get out to the polls.
“It’s really important, especially now, because the documentary shows that young people can have an impact, even though we can’t come together,” David Hogg, a Parkland survivor and activist, says. “Hopefully young people will be able to watch and see what happened in 2018, and be inspired by that and turn out to vote, in what I hope to be is the highest seen voter turnout in American history.”
In hopes of reaching more young viewers, “Us Kids” will be available for free from its Oct. 30 launch through election day on Alamo Drafthouse’s virtual cinema, in conjunction with Alamo Drafthouse and Get Out the Vote.
Hogg appears in the documentary, alongside fellow activists Emma González, Sam Fuentes, Jaclyn Corin, Cameron Kasky, Bria Smith, Alex King, and Alex Dworet, who all gained national notoriety for using their voices after they experienced the horrors of gun violence at their own school.
While the doc heavily covers the group’s efforts to end gun violence, the team behind the film hopes viewers walk away with a greater understanding what fuels Gen Z.
“It’s more about the issue of youth activism and what our generation has gone through. It’s really a tale of our generation in the United States,” Hogg says. “One thing Kim talks about a lot is the fact that when she was filming this, she realized that the current generation of Americans is being raised in a country that is inherently traumatizing to them. We’re seeing the massive amounts of racial injustice occurring everywhere, we’re seeing kids have to go through school shooter drills. Young people, every day, are waking up or going to sleep to the sound of gunfire in their neighborhood, and it’s a normal occurrence for them.”
In order to allow the film to speak to the very generation it profiles, Snyder took a more hands-on approach than she ever has, as a filmmaker. During filming, Snyder showed the kids clips along the way, so that she could use their reactions to inform the final product.
“I was really trying to give them the voice, and I really wanted it to reach people their age,” Snyder explains. “You’re told as a filmmaker that people that age don’t even watch long form docs. I really wanted to make something that they would actually watch.”
Though the film was shot two years ago, the premiere could not be more timely; not just because of the upcoming election, but because of the social justice movements that have captured the world in recent months.
“Since the killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, again, there is this is incredible parallel. In the film, we try to chronicle that this is the guts of real movements and how they’re born,” Snyder says, bringing up a specific moment from the film where one of the students notes that the reason kids fought so hard at Vietnam is because they saw their friends coming home in caskets.
When the Parkland kids were at the center of a school shooting, suddenly their lives completely changed. Instead of focusing on college applications and dating, they shifted their focus to gun reform.
Strangely, as the pandemic hit, more young people also began to experience a similar loss of innocence. Proms and graduations were cancelled, as the fear of health and safety took over the mindset of so many children who have been forced to face an unthinkable world.
“To literally be scared that you’re going to be shot, or that your reproductive rights are going to be taken away, or that your grandfather is going to die from COVID, these are things that were unthinkable in my day and age. And they have a lot more information because they grew up in the age of the internet,” Snyder says.
“They’re certainly not the first generation throughout history who had to rise to the occasion, but they are living in a time that demands this of them,” Snyder continues. “Things happen where certain group step up and take the reins and become revolutionary, in a sense. I see them as entirely historic, in that way. They are the next greatest generation.”
Hogg is currently balancing life as a Harvard student, taking classes and studying from home, while working as an internationally-recognized activist with more than one million social media followers. This election marks the first time he can vote. Along with his peers, he helped to create the March For Our Lives Voting Guide, to educate young people on how to vote in their first election.
“It’s sad that it’s had to get to this point,” Hogg says. “It shouldn’t be young people, in a free-for-all, trying to save ourselves on the day that we’re able to actually vote. It should have been the adults that took care of it, before these issues ever became problems.”