Tuesday 18 June 2019

Surviving Sandy Hook, TV review: 'the feeling you took away was one of common sense crushed by idiocy'

Programme Name: This World: Surviving Sandy Hook - TX: 04/03/2015 - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: with Jesse's message. JT - (C) True Vision Productions Ltd - Photographer: Jezza Neumann
Programme Name: This World: Surviving Sandy Hook - TX: 04/03/2015 - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: with Jesse's message. JT - (C) True Vision Productions Ltd - Photographer: Jezza Neumann

Pat Stacey

There are some assurances that should never have to be given to a child. Such as, “No, love, don’t worry. No bad man with a gun is going to come into a school and kill you and all your friends.”


Barbara Barden had to lay her little boy’s mind to rest on this topic one bedtime. He’d said, “I’m in first grade at Sandy Hook School now. Is it my turn to die?”

Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut is, of course, the site of probably the most shocking school shooting incident in the United States.

A week before Christmas in 2012, a 20-year-old called Adam Lanza entered the school and shot 20 children aged between five and 10, and six teachers. Before leaving his home, Lanza had shot his mother. When he was through killing others, he killed himself.

Lanza barely figured in Jezza Neumann’s profoundly moving documentary Surviving Sandy Hook, filmed between the first anniversary of the tragedy and 2014. There were no photographs of him, no background information and the absolute minimum of news footage from the day itself. I can’t be sure about this, but I think his name was mentioned no more than once.

The tight, unflinching focus wasn’t really on the children and adults who died, either, but on the people caged forever by the aftermath. The oldest of Barbara’s sons, Daniel, seven at the time, was in school that day and survived unscathed, at least on the outside.

What’s happened to him – what’s still happening to him – on the inside is something none of us would wish upon ourselves or our kids. “The speaker was on at the time,” he recalled. “We heard every single bullet, we heard people crying, we actually heard people’s deaths themselves.”

Daniel is a young boy with an old, wearied soul and a worryingly undemonstrative face. When gently pressed by Neumann, who also filmed the documentary and conducted the interviews, to give his account of what happened that day, he politely clammed up. “Not many people just talk,” he said, leaving it at that.

Barbara does talk, though. She remembered what she was thinking when she got to the school, which was in lockdown after the shooting, and then made the choice to go home to her two other sons.

“Do I run inside and get Daniel, or do I stay alive for the two children I have at home?” As luck would have it, she did the right thing. But her guilt is corrosive.

Scarlett, whose son Jesse was among the dead (when Lanza ran out of bullets, he shouted at the other kids in the room to run, before reloading and shooting Jesse), has channelled her grief into something positive by writing a book, trying to get projects to help people with mental health problems off the ground and addressing prisoners with a history of gun violence. Her surviving son JT, Jesse’s big brother, has hooked up with victims of genocide in Africa and is trying to highlight their plight.

The third parent to feature in the film, Gilles Rousseau, lost his 30-year-old daughter Lauren, a teacher at Sandy Hook, in the shootings. In the final scenes, we saw him talking to NRA members at their annual convention.

“I’m not an anti-gun activist,” he said, explaining how he was trying to have modest gun control proposals written into American legislation. Inevitably, he failed.

Why wouldn’t he when one of the NRA people he spoke to, a psychotherapist and gun owner called Janet, suggested owning a high-powered assault rifle was no more threatening or dangerous than owning a car? The feeling you took away at the end was one of common sense crushed by idiocy.

Surviving Sandy Hook, BBC2


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