Brow Beat

Parkland and Newtown Survivors Met at a Screening of the School-Shooting Documentary Notes From Dunblane

The award-winning film brought together survivors from the U.S. and the U.K. for a discussion on resilience and gun reform.

Father Bob Weiss and Father Basil O'Sullivan prepare for the one-year anniversary of the Newtown school shooting. They are both elderly priests: O'Sullivan, on the left, is in his seventies, while Weiss, right, is probably in his fifties or early sixties.
Father Bob Weiss and Father Basil O’Sullivan prepare for the one-year anniversary of the Newtown school shooting.
KA Snyder Productions, LLC

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival was a locus of social issues, from its day-long Time’s Up lecture series to award-winning films about halted immigration and rural American poverty. But few films were as chillingly relevant as Kim A. Snyder’s Notes from Dunblane: Lessons from a School Shooting, wherein two priests from school shooting-wrecked towns talk each other through their trauma. The poignant film began as a conversation between survivors of the Newtown school shooting and Dunblane, Scotland’s 1996 attack, but Parkland students joined the conversation in a special post-film discussion on Sunday.

Notes from Dunblane opens with news footage from a March 1996 elementary school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, before flashing forward 16 years to the 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Correspondence between priests in each town frame the film’s narrative of resilience and connection. Dunblane’s Father Basil O’Sullivan, filled with “not again” dread, reaches out to Newtown’s Father Bob Weiss via e-mail. The two form a close relationship as they help each other through their grief: Weiss writes about his difficulty explaining God to disillusioned children, and O’Sullivan empathizes with the onus of counseling grieving parents. It’s a well-outlined and touching human story that deservedly took home Tribeca’s Best Documentary Short Film award at this year’s festival.

Perhaps the film’s greatest impact at the festival, however, came when it united survivors of Dunblane, Newtown, and Parkland for a post-screening discussion. The panel, moderated by actor John Slattery, brought Notes from Dunblane’s ethos to life as these survivors united across oceans and generations. The event reunited Fathers O’Sullivan and Weiss for the first time since the film’s shooting. Panelists also included Newtown survivor Mary Ann Jacob and Parkland students Dylan Kraemer and Ryan Deitsch.

The survivors shared a visceral passion for gun regulation, but they were also united in their trauma. In the documentary, Father Bob Weiss mentions the visions of broken glass that would haunt him at night. During their post-screening discussion, Parkland survivor Dylan Kramer said he “can still taste the gunpowder.”

“It’s been three months for you, right?” Sandy Hook library clerk Mary Ann Jacob asked the Parkland survivors. “It’s gonna take a lot longer.” She said one of the “greatest gifts” they got after Newtown was when Columbine survivors came to their town.

One of the most striking takeaways from this Scotland-US assembly was just how resigned the United States has become to gun violence. “Our hearts were broken again when we saw the tragedy in Newtown,” Father O’Sullivan said, whereas Father Weiss noted that the Sandy Hook massacre showed him that “no one is exempt [from school shootings] anymore.” When recounting his experience during the Parkland shooting, Dylan Kraemer noted that once the shooting began, “we all knew, sadly, exactly what was going on.”

Through their activism, each community is working to upend this deadly norm. Dunblane residents advocated for, and won, major gun control laws across the UK. Now, Father O’Sullivan doesn’t understand why Newtown never instigated similar change. “[It’s] not for me to make a comment about a great country like the United States,” he said in the documentary, “but I don’t understand it.” (The line garnered weary chuckles from the audience.)

Of course, the panel didn’t just revel in sorrow. Parkland student Ryan Deitsch spoke eloquently about his and his peers’ March for Our Lives activism. “These are just Band-Aids on stab wounds,” he said of Florida’s lackluster gun control laws. “Our country is only as strong as our weakest laws.” He also noted that Parkland had been “given the spotlight” because their shooting happened in a “white, affluent community in south Florida.” His brother and March for Our Lives Chief Strategist, Matt Deitsch, spoke up from the audience with similar words of wisdom: “If you guys leave this theater and don’t do anything, then you’ve failed us and we’ve failed you.”

Harvard Divinity School’s David Hempton, a U.K. native, also stood up to add that he was “more optimistic than I’ve ever been before in this country,” thanks to the Parkland students’ activism. “I think we are all [optimistic],” Notes director Kim Snyder echoed, “because you guys are gonna vote.”

As far as legislation they adamantly don’t support goes, Newtown’s Mary Ann Jacobs was quite clear. When asked what she thought of arming teachers as a school staffer, Jacobs fired off a quick reply. “The only people that are having that conversation are the NRA leadership and President Trump.”