It would be impossible to make a film about the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, and walk away unchanged. “I crossed the line from filmmaking into something that I relate to very personally,” says Cheryl Horner McDonough, reached by the Georgia Straight in New York City. “Once you’ve seen it and you can’t unsee it, you can’t just walk away.”
Before she made Parkland Rising, McDonough’s experiences as an American parent were sadly typical. Her stepson was only 10 minutes away from Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut during that killing spree in 2012. Regular lockdown drills are practised at the Manhattan school attended by her two daughters. In the wake of Parkland, which killed 17 people, McDonough followed survivors and parents, mobilized by student David Hogg, as they campaigned for gun reform and electoral change. In the film’s more alarming moments, the high-school senior is confronted with armed counterprotests and death threats. From a car, someone hollers: “Fuck you, David Hogg, you fuckin’ bitch. God bless the NRA!”
“We showed enough to say this is happening but not enough to say this is a film about it,” McDonough remarks. “It’s a small minority of vocal extremists who make it their business to try to intimidate and threaten. But as time went on and I had a chance to look at footage from one protest after another, what does start to reveal itself is that it’s not a 50-50 issue in this country. I think in a lot of cases the media does us all a disservice by pretending that there are two equal sides, but the numbers just don’t bear that out.”
Parkland Rising leans indomitably toward the positive. The MSD shooter remains conspicuously unnamed in the doc, and after a harrowing start, in which students recall their experiences alongside video and audio from the day, the film focuses entirely on action. The Parkland activists monitor each new tragedy as their campaigns proceed from city to city—there were 23 school shootings in 2018—but they also score impressive victories, including the suspension of campaign contributions from the Publix supermarket chain to NRA–friendly congressman Adam Putnam.
“I came in thinking, ‘We’re so entrenched,’ ” McDonough says. “But I walked away thinking, ‘Oh, no—this can be fixed.’ I see the path, and that’s truly why I’m so committed to it.”
Significantly, as the film draws to a close, McDonough captures a brief but poignant moment of normalcy and innocence. Hogg and his cohort are visiting an arcade when they learn that Virginia congresswoman Barbara Comstock has been unseated in the 2018 midterms. Hogg’s sister Lauren remembers having the door “slammed in my face” by the NRA–shilling Republican. “And now she got voted the fuck out,” her brother says, beaming. But the celebration is brief: Lauren needs a dollar for the more immediate business of gaming.
“I love that you picked up on that!” McDonough says with a laugh. “A couple people said you should just move faster here and take that out, but no: you should never forget that these are kids.”
Cheryl Horner McDonough will be in attendance when Parkland Rising screens as part of the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival at the Vancity Theatre next Thursday (March 5).