Utah Film Center sets presentations for Newtown documentary, Oscar-winning Spotlight

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Two films – a documentary that premiered at Sundance in January and this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture – that delve into painful memories involving either the murder or sexual abuse of children are part of the upcoming Utah Film Center’s free, public schedule of screenings.

The April 6 screening of Spotlight, the Best Picture Oscar winner for 2016 directed by Tom McCarthy, will feature Phil Saviano, the survivor and key source portrayed in the film, in a Q&A session following the screening, which also is sponsored by the Talk To A Survivor organization. The screening will be at 7 p.m. in the City Library auditorium in downtown.

Newtown, the documentary directed by Kim Snyder, confronts in a profoundly emotional yet sensitively deliberated way the personal and collective impacts of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December 2012 that left 20 children and six adults dead. The film will screen March 29 at 7 p.m. in the City Library auditorium. Snyder will be available on Skype for a Q&A after the screening.

Kim Snyder, director, Newtown.
Kim Snyder, director, Newtown.
Snyder’s film premiered at Sundance in January to much acclaim and an outpouring of emotional response (it was nominated for the festival’s best documentary honors) and it brings forward fully the tremendously awkward and often discomfiting situation of how one addresses and copes with the immense grief especially when families lose children in horrific tragedies. Yet, Snyder also is judicious at the most critical points, especially when a Connecticut state trooper soberly says, “I don’t think anybody needs to know specifically what we saw.”

The families as well as witnesses and various police officers, emergency medical technicians, dispatch operators and the chief of a hospital emergency services department are prominently featured in Snyder’s film that also excerpts home videos. Among the most memorable and poignant is an EMT who said she was initially hopeful that there was only one victim and the person appeared to be in good condition to survive but then the full scope of the killings emerged brutally. The Catholic priest who would conduct many funerals seems acutely aware of the extraordinarily difficult task of consoling a bereaved community. At numerous points, the viewer will be touched to the point of tears, wondering how still inconceivable the shootings of nearly three and a half years ago seem today. To the deepest regrets, however, we also have become too painfully aware of the familiarity of these mass shootings.

In 2016, one of Newtown’s most important aspects challenges our contemporary culture’s sometimes urgent need to sanitize or mitigate grief. It is somewhat ironic that as we have become accustomed to grieving collectively especially on social media platforms we also fall often instinctively to the mindset of moving on, sometimes to the point of wondering if the grieving parents might have become obsessive or are overindulging themselves in refusing to move on.

One of Snyder’s smartest choices is letting the parents speak openly. There is the father who stashes items around the house which trigger a particular memory. A mother who now travels across the country frequently says the advocacy work allows her the opportunity to imagine her son being home.

Only a small portion of the film is dedicated to the political fight parents have now taken up, realizing just how formidable the task is to even petition members of Congress to tighten background requirements for purchasing and operating a weapon. The film’s larger statement is that even as the Sandy Hook school was demolished, few if any members of the community will ever allow the horrible events of that December day be forgotten or fade in memory. Indeed, in the weeks immediately following the shootings, many Americans and policy observers believed that the Sandy Hook shootings would end the stalemate in the debate about gun control. And, some subsequent mass shootings – such as last summer’s shooting at an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina – have amplified that watershed moment.

However, as much as many Americans are frustrated that little or nothing has occurred in the short term, there are many signs that the movement for regulating guns and stemming gun violence has gradually expanded, as advocates realize that the fight will be a longer term one, perhaps stretching well into the next decade and beyond.

It is Snyder’s subtle decision of emphasis in Newtown that perhaps brings the justification for a national gun control campaign to its undeniable piercing light of the public eye. In Newtown, there are groups established by families, including Sandy Hook Promise, the Newtown Action Alliance and Foundation and the Avielle Foundation that are gaining visibility.

In a feature published last December in the Hartford Courant newspaper on the third anniversary of the shootings, despite those sorts of grim predictions — and the growing number of mass shootings — the families of the Newtown victims are pushing on with their determined campaign. Saul Cornell, a Fordham University history professor who focuses on numerous constitutional issues, believes that could affect Sandy Hook’s lasting impact.

“The victims of gun violence finally have a voice in this debate,” said Cornell. “Since Sandy Hook, you can speak of this victims’ rights community. … They are now a voice out there, and they haven’t gone away.”

primary_Spotlight-2015-4 Similar voices highlight Spotlight, which deftly dramatizes the work of the Spotlight investigative journalism team at The Boston Globe 15 years ago in revealing the lengths the Catholic diocese in the city exercised to cover up incidents of molestation and sexual abuse committed by priests. The film also won Oscar honors for Best Original Screenplay, which McCarthy wrote with Josh Singer.

Spotlight rises to the difficult artistic task at sustaining narrative tension even as the audience knows how the investigative team’s journalistic work uncovered an immense scandal. The film, in many respects, is the modern-day version of All The President’s Men, the 1976 film directed by Alan Pakula.

The two-hour film moves quickly, as it traverses many interrelated topics, often with a suitably understated hand. There are the appropriate questions of faith and trust, particularly in the institutions that are obligated to guarantee those values. However, one of the most important subplots in the film also addresses the newspaper’s issues of ethics and responsibility. The question arises about whether the reporters may have enabled the scandal to continue by its previous discounting of Saviano’s work years earlier.

Phil Saviano
Phil Saviano
The key to pursuing the damning evidence, for example, lay in a news clip from years earlier, suggesting that the scandal was not isolated to just one or a few priests. Thus, one of Spotlight’s critical successes is that the reporters are not framed as heroes but properly as principled journalists who believe in their professional capacity to bring the painful truths to the public’s eye.

One of the most astute reviews of Spotlight came from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who screened the film last fall at the Venice Film Festival.

What is interesting about this movie is that it reminds you that the “bad apple” theory of child abuse by priests was widely accepted until relatively recently. The team are stunned at the realisation that what they are working on is not like, say, a corruption case where there are more public officials on the take than they at first thought. It is a mass psychological dysfunction hidden in plain sight, which has stretched back decades or even centuries and will, unchecked, do precisely the same in the future.

Spotlight also is an effective film for media studies. In a case study prepared for Columbia University’s journalism school and the Knight Foundation Case Studies Initiative, the reporters who were portrayed in the film shared their professional experience. All four members of the Spotlight team were raised Catholic but were no longer active members of their faith. It is noteworthy that their formative experience in growing up Catholic helped them contextualize just how prominent the role of Catholic priests is in the community. There is an excerpt in the Knight case study that is echoed precisely in the effective dramatization of the film:

Hardened journalists—as well as lapsed Catholics—the Spotlight Team members were expecting to uncover secrets. But what they found exceeded their expectations. It was the prevalence of abuse that shocked them and, more than that, the church’s effort to conceal it. ‘Even though I was aware that [sexual abuse in the church] was a problem,’ [Michael] Rezendes says, ‘I never, ever for one second thought that we would discover what we ultimately did discover.’

For more information about all Utah Film Center screenings, see here.

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Les Roka
I am a native of Toledo, Ohio, having received my Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication from Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism in 2002. In addition to teaching at Utah State University and the University of Utah, I have worked extensively in public relations for a variety of organizations including a major metropolitan university, college of osteopathic medicine, and community college. When it comes to intellectual curiosity, I venture into as many areas as possible, whether it’s about music criticism, the history of journalism, the practice of public relations in a Web 2.0 world and the soon-to-arrive Web 3.0 landscape, or how public debates are formed about many issues especially in the political arena. As a Salt Lake City resident, I currently write and edit a blog called The Selective Echo that provides an entertaining, informative, and provocative look at Salt Lake City and its cosmopolitan best. I also have been the U.S. editorial advisor for an online publication Art Design Publicity based in The Netherlands. And, I use social media tools such as Twitter for blogging, networking with journalists and experts, and staying current on the latest trends in culture and news. I also have been a regular monthly contributor to a Utah business magazine, and I have recently conducted a variety of editing projects involving authors and researchers throughout the country and the world, including Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Lebanon, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, France, and Japan. I’m also a classically trained musician who spent more than 15 years in a string quartet, being involved in more than 400 performances.

1 COMMENT

  1. This is a thoughtful and careful review of the film. As per usual, Les Roka has shown the context around the film, and the incident of the Newtown shootings of children and adults. Perhaps more importantly he has drawn out, again, thoughtfully and carefully, its cultural meaning, if not its political impact on the gun lobby.

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