After Parkland review – a moving look at what happens after a school shooting

The survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting take center stage in a smartly constructed look at grief and healing

“I feel bad,” an interviewer starts as the camera focuses on Andrew Pollack, from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school, eagle logo on his polo shirt up. Pollack’s daughter, Meadow, was killed at the school in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day last year.

“I want you to not feel bad,” he says, cutting off her questions. “If someone murdered my kid, I’m just saying, I can take anything.” Pollack’s frankness in the first frames of After Parkland, from film-makers Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman of ABC Documentaries, underlies the rest of the film, which stares down the messy, confounding, idiosyncratic well of grief as it dams up and spills through Parkland over the course of 2018.

From the beginning of the film to the end, people cope with the flood differently. Manuel Oliver, who lost his son, Joaquin “Guac” Oliver, a high school senior, describes an irreparable hole in his world, “an empty space”. David Hogg, the fire-tongued student journalist who became a media star of the March For Our Lives movement, enters After Parkland over a bowl of cereal and unminced anger: “If people want to know what it’s like to go back to school every day where something like this occurred, imagine getting in a plane crash, surviving, and getting on the same plane every day where the one issue that caused it isn’t fixed.”

The attack on Parkland was one of hundreds of mass shootings last year, but has held the attention more than any other since then – in part because of the 17 people killed, in part because Stoneman Douglas was a “safe” high school in a quiet, middle-to-upper-class community, and in large part because of the truly remarkable wave of activism it spawned. After Parkland is one of several recent attempts to publicly contextualize, record and process the story of the tragedy’s aftermath. Parkland, the expertly empathetic book by the veteran gun violence reporter Dave Cullen, chronicled the March for Our Lives movement (including Hogg) from living room to Washington and beyond; Song of Parkland, a short HBO documentary, hewed even more narrowly to the high school’s drama department and its healing through the production of its annual spring musical.

After Parkland, in contrast, features overlapping characters – some familiar from the reams of Parkland coverage, others less so – in a documentary of much wider scope. The violence itself – gunshots, screams, cellphone footage of students streaming out of classrooms in terror or narrating from a dark closet – takes up less than eight minutes at the film’s outset (just 90 seconds longer than it took the shooter to kill those 17). The rest of After Parkland’s 90 minutes go to the aftermath, in its many faces. Raw grief, when Guac’s close friend Sam Zeif demands change and grasps the shoulder of a Sandy Hook mom at a White House meeting. Anger, when Pollack enters a school board race and reprimands the sheriff’s office for not arresting the shooter sooner. Activism, in Hogg’s dogged media appearances for March for Our Lives or Oliver’s striking murals for his non-profit, Change the Ref. Healing, whether that’s through a protest, or a basketball game, or simply going back to school.

A tribute to the Oliver family, who lost their 17-year-old son Joaquin, on the fence outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
A tribute to the Oliver family, who lost their 17-year-old son Joaquin, on the fence outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school. Photograph: Tribeca Fim Festival

After Parkland’s cameras started filming shortly after the shooting. They follow participants in their cars as they return to the school’s campus, meet up to attend the march in Washington, or discuss the event with their parents. The film thus captures, more viscerally than text or a podcast could, the bewildering disruption rendered by national attention on Parkland. The camera lingers on Zeif’s face as he surveys a row of 20 or so police cars, blue lights flashing, that welcome him back to school. Hogg’s mother, Rebecca, steers him away from a row of nameless microphones barking questions so he can get to class. You hear the scattershot click of cameras, see lens after professional camera lens, and can’t help but wonder how intrusive it might have felt. The media attention on Parkland isn’t necessarily a bad thing – student activists worked tirelessly to extend their typically short news window – but After Parkland reveals it to be a jarring new normal, nonetheless.

The film’s strength, however, resides in its quieter moments, its footage of ordinary community events and the logistics of carrying on. A rec basketball championship game, coached by Oliver and starring Guac’s two best friends, becomes a community memorial illustrating the always strange blend of sadness and healing. The absurdity of gun violence blares through a moment in a Home Depot when Oliver and his wife Patricia, can’t find spray paint for their mural protesting against the NRA, because retail spray paint is banned in Chicago – a city ravaged by 530 gun deaths last year, in a country where all it takes to buy an AR-15 is seven minutes and a driver’s license.

After Parkland smartly foregrounds the systemic reality of gun violence in America while never mentioning the shooter, focusing instead on healing without dramatization; it adheres to a no-frills format that plays, fittingly, like an extended news feature. The collection of scenes at home, at the local gym, and at school openly gesture toward a greater purpose for the spotlight: keeping the attention on Parkland so its victims don’t fade away into another faceless date in the annals of American mass shootings.

At the end of the film – in September 2018, the beginning of a new chapter, but before two student suicides this year rocked Parkland anew – Brooke Harrison, a sophomore who saw three classmates killed in the shooting, laments an upcoming active shooter drill to her mother. It doesn’t matter, it’s unhelpful, she says – she’s seen bullets rip through walls. Her mom explains that this is the reality: to be ready, the school has to practice duck-and-cover. “You have to, every school has to,” she says. Brooke and her mom are mic-ed, talking to a camera, but their conversation probably played out in many other kitchens that morning in Parkland and across America. It doesn’t have to be this way, say the survivors of After Parkland. But for the students who returned to Parkland this year, for students from Santa Fe, Texas, journalists at the Annapolis Capital Gazette, congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue – people shown in news clips from After Parkland’s chilling credits, and more Americans to come – it is.

  • After Parkland is showing at the Tribeca film festival and will be released later this year


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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