On December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old gunman forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered 20 schoolchildren and six educators. In the aftermath of the killings, filmmaker Kim Snyder traveled to Newtown and trained her lens on a grieving community, following several families who came face to face with tragedy. NEWTOWN reveals both the indelible scars gun violence leaves behind and the resilience of people who come together to heal.
AFI spoke to director Snyder ahead of the film’s AFI DOCS premiere.
What led you to documentary filmmaking?
I was working on the production side of narrative filmmaking when a turn in my personal life compelled me to direct my first documentary. I have been doing it ever since.
What inspired you to tell this story?
I was drawn to the profound effects of collective trauma and the need for many people in Newtown to be heard on their own terms in an effort to make meaning out of the unthinkable. I wanted to pierce through a growing desensitization to these escalating incidents of mass gun violence through creating an emotional experience that humanizes the issue in a universal way.
How did your subjects?
It was like peeling an onion. In that first year, I did not feel comfortable penetrating the privacy of those most affected. My first connections were with the Interfaith community, which informed an intimacy and framing that was at once philosophic, existential and spiritual to some extent; it lent a holistic approach to a community wrestling with the darkest of journeys. Friar Bob, the priest who buried eight of the 20 children, was among those severely affected in terms of trauma. As I organically developed relationships with others through careful trust building, I began to develop a story of a town through a number of prisms, including that of parents of loss, educators, first responders, neighbors, youth — faces that render a portrait of any town and one that would redefine what it means to be a victim, while exploring the profound effects of survivor guilt and the resilience required to repair the social fabric of the entire community in the wake of the tragedy.
What was a particular obstacle you faced while making the film?
I faced a profound sense of responsibility in not wanting the process of the film to add to the ongoing trauma of those who participated, and in keeping my own psychological and emotion reactions to the material in check.
What do you want audiences to walk away with?
I want them to take away a profoundly emotional but rewarding journey to experience in their own community. I want them to experience perspective, anger and uplift from a community that offers profound truth and life perspective. Most importantly, I want them to leave with the conviction to participate in effecting change.
Why is Washington, DC, a valuable location to screen your film?
It is perhaps the most essential place for us to screen. Presenting an intimate exploration of the aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting of schoolchildren in American history in the seat of government and policymaking will be extremely powerful. We hope to maximize this potential.
Inspiring New Documentary Almost Sunrise and Its Immersive Impact Campaign
Demonstrates the Power of Meditation & Nature in Healing “Moral Injury” from War
DC Premiere at AFI Docs:
Thursday, June 23 at 4:00 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema (Theatre 1)
Friday, June 24 at 6:45 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center (Theatre 3)
From the Emmy-Nominated Filmmakers of Give Up Tomorrow
Once in a while, a film comes along that breaks from the genre. War documentaries are usually somber pieces that explore the darkness of battle but few, if any, venture past the shadows. But a unique new film takes a rare, uplifting look at the life of veterans beyond their demons.
It’s a staggering statistic: 22 U.S. veterans take their own lives every day, which means, we lose more soldiers to suicide than to combat. Despite millions of dollars spent on the mental health of veterans, the crisis rages unabated. Almost Sunrise, a new feature documentary by the award-winning filmmaking team behind Give Up Tomorrow (a 2013 News & Documentary Emmy nominee) Michael Collins (director) and Marty Syjuco (producer), is a timely and groundbreaking look at what could be a missing piece of the puzzle—the true nature of the psychological wounds of returning soldiers known as “moral injury” and the undeniable potential power of meditation and nature therapy in helping veterans to reclaim their lives.
Almost Sunrise will make its World Premiere on Memorial Day weekend at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival with one of the opening night slots on May 27 at the 650-seat Palm Theater, followed by screenings on May 29 and 30. The film will next make its East Coast Premiere at the prestigious Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York, June 11 and 13. It is also an official selection of the distinguished AFI Docs in Washington, DC, screening June 23 and 24. Along with its film festival premieres, Almost Sunrise launches an immersive two-year impact campaign.
“Our vision for the campaign is to walk with veterans on a path towards healing,” says Syjuco. “Our goals are three-fold: 1. Changing the Narrative; 2. Promoting Wellness; 3. Supporting Legislation (Veteran Wellness Act H.R. 2555).”
Almost Sunrise tells the inspiring story of two Iraq veterans, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, who, in an attempt to put their haunting combat experience behind, embark on an extraordinary 2,700 mile trek on foot across America. While the physical trek across snowy mountains and vast deserts is punishing, the inner journey proves to be, by far, the most dangerous mission they will ever undertake. Like many of their fellow returned servicemen and women, Tom and Anthony are tackling post traumatic stress, or PTS, but the pair are simultaneously dealing with an unseen battle scar called “moral injury”—often manifested as an extreme brand of guilt and shame that arises when one goes against one’s own moral code. While PTS, characterized by fear, can be treated with drugs, therapists are finding that no amount of medication can treat the pain that comes from carrying a moral burden. Almost Sunrise is the first feature documentary film to introduce the emerging term “moral injury,” what some experts believe may eventually be recognized as the signature war wound of our generation.
While the film exposes some of the brutality of war, it does not dwell there. “It’s ultimately a story of hope and potential solutions,” Collins says. Most importantly, the film reveals the promise of holistic practices for healing. When Tom signs up for a special breathing workshop for veterans, he must confront his deepest spiritual identity. He encounters Father Thomas Keating, a renowned Trappist monk who has counseled veterans for decades, who gently illuminates the need to turn inward to achieve true peace, guidance that culminates in a remarkable transformation, rarely depicted on screen. Where the stereotypes of “the broken veteran” and “homecoming hero” leave off, Almost Sunrise continues onward, presenting audiences with an unprecedented portrait of those who return from war; richer, far more complex beings—driven by a universal human aspiration for happiness—who discover life’s soaring possibilities.
ABOUT THE CAMPAIGN:
The Almost Sunrise Impact Campaign is a two-year initiative designed to educate and engage target audiences. The campaign will include the national broadcast premiere of Almost Sunrise in 2017 on the PBS documentary series POV (date and time to be announced), as well as an interactive multimedia exhibit including a photo essay, videos, audio, articles, educational curricula and more (dates and times to be determined.)
The campaign focuses on the following key goals:
Changing the Narrative
We are challenging stereotypes of veterans through public education, engaging communities through the use of screenings, panel discussions, visual and performance arts and partnering with targeted NGOs to use the film as a tool to support and promote their interrelated missions.
We are challenging the dependence and possible overuse of medication to treat psychic wounds and promote the growing body of research and documented experience around the benefits of holistic practices and its as yet untapped potential to contribute to the healing of veterans.
We are working with Congressman Tim Ryan to support the Veterans Wellness Act (HR 2555) legislation that will improve the ability of Veteran Service Organizations (VSO) to promote good health among our nation’s veterans. These facilities are a place of comfort and familiarity for thousands of men and women and their families. The new legislation would expand upon the activities in which these organizations are currently engaged, and create greater opportunities for veterans to access wellness programs and therapies.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS:
Director Michael Collins is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and the founder of Thoughtful Robot, a production company specializing in social issue documentary films. Producer Marty Syjuco is from the Philippines. Their film Give Up Tomorrow (POV 2012) won the Audience Award and a Special Jury Mention for Best New Director at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, a Media Award from Amnesty International, and was nominated for a 2013 News & Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism.
SCREENINGS/TICKET INFO AND IMMERSION ACTIVITIES:
Almost Sunrise at Telluride Mountainfilm Festival (World Premiere)
(Q & A’s after screenings, with director Michael Collins, producer Marty Syjuco and film subject Tom Voss attending)
A contemplative walk into the woods of Central Park led by Tom Voss, an Iraq veteran and meditation teacher, featured in Almost Sunrise. Voss has experienced first-hand, the restorative, soul-nourishing benefits of spending time in nature—he recently completed an epic 2,700 mile walk from Wisconsin to California. “Walking is being with yourself,” Voss says. As ancient spiritual traditions around the world demonstrate, the simple act of walking can elevate consciousness. Allow yourself a space for reflection and feel the aliveness of your environment and your own self with every step.
Almost Sunrise Breathing & Meditation Intro Session
Tuesday, June 14 in New York City
An introduction to meditation and an ancient practice called “The Power Breath” designed to unlock a happier, more relaxed state of being with higher levels of awareness, focus and clarity. Led by Tom Voss, an Iraq veteran and holistic teacher, featured in Almost Sunrise, the workshop will explore the connection between breath, meditation and state of mind. Empower and refresh your spirit daily, by discovering these tools that can lead you to a calm, centered mind and access to an unlimited storehouse of energy.
Almost Sunrise at AFI Docs (Washington, DC, Premiere)
(Q & A’s after screenings, with director Michael Collins, producer Marty Syjuco and film subject Tom Voss attending)
Film submissions for the Competition section of the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) is now ready on the festival website! (Submission period: April 15-July 8, 2016)
As one of the largest film festivals in Asia – TIFF Competition has been showing many outstanding films created by up-and-coming directors as well as premieres of works by prestigious filmmakers of the world.
Last year, we were honored to receive 1,409 films from 86 countries and regions. 16 excellent films were screened after the pre-selection and Nise – The Heart of Madness (Brazil) directed by Roberto Berliner won the Tokyo Grand Prix for the last year’s TIFF.
Last night the 31st edition of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) drew to a close at the historic Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara. Festival Director Roger Durling welcomed and expressed his gratitude to the festival’s Board of Directors and to everyone who came out and supported the 200+ films and all the filmmakers from around the world. And, without missing a beat, Durling demonstrated his appreciation for the 700+ volunteers who provide additional support to his staff during the eleven day cinema celebration saying, “We couldn’t do it without the support of our volunteers…I salute you.”
(Photo Credit: William Conlin, YDL Digital Film)
The closing night film, Marguerite, started with a subtitles glitch. After a restart and a technical adjustment the film ran in its entirety and proved to be a crowd pleaser.
Next weekend several popular festival films are screened for the public free of charge at the scenic Riviera Theatre as part of the festival’s 3rd Weekend. Admission to the 3rd Weekend is on a first come first served basis. Here is a listing of films showing:
In addition, the festival is actively engaged throughout the year with its weekly Showcase Series and additional screenings with Q & A’s through Cinema Society and the SBIFF Wave Festivals. One of the tenants to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is giving back to the community and showcasing the art of film through it’s various outreach programming including its 10-10-10 Student Filmmaking and Screenwriting Competitions, Mike’s Field Trip to the Movies, National Film Studies Program, AppleBox Family Films, and its educational seminars.
Keep in mind, it’s only 364 days until the 2017 Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s 32nd edition. Until then….I’ll see you at the movies!
(Source: Santa Barbara International Film Festival)