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Saturday, September 17, 2016

"Speaking is Difficult" The Haunting Normalcy of Mass Shootings

The film’s subject is the recurring tragedy of mass shootings in America. Utilizing a team of 20 videographers, Schnack, in reverse chronological order, cuts together peaceful, placid images of the settings of these crimes and overlays panicked, 911 emergency calls from the events. 



Speaking is Difficult, the newest short film from veteran documentarian AJ Schnack, and released through his journalistic venture Field of Visionis not an easy watch, in either subject or construction. To the latter point, it’s not the kind of film that you design for the internet—it is slow and long, there is no action onscreen to speak of, and it is highly repetitive. Many of you will click play, watch a couple of minutes and maybe scrub through the timeline a bit before eventually stopping. This is understandable. Yet this difficulty does yield rewards for the dedicated—Speaking is Difficult is a remarkably urgent film, speaking out as it does to one of America’s ongoing tragedies in a novel way. The nature of its repetition, the grinding, inexorable accumulation of its tragedy, sneaks up on you and eventually overwhelms if you devote your full attention to it, creating the possibility for a highly affecting viewing experience, one that, through its formal experimentation, highlights the beauty and facility of the short form itself. 

The result is a tour through places and dates, the names and the numbers triggering faded memories of events that were front page news at the time, only to recede from public consciousness. As a viewer it’s a trigger, reminding one of events once familiar that may be forgotten, the recognition of which in individual events is incriminating of ourselves, but repeated, back to back, over and over, highlights the culpability of the society at large. 
That concept, of our habituation to the unacceptable, is reinforced by the juxtaposition of the images and recordings, but also triggers a new empathy and fresh fear. Life goes on, even after tragedy, and mundanity of daily life in the present day at these sites of extreme violence reminds us at once how easily we move on, but also serves as a powerful warning for the future. The sites themselves are not special or unique, they are areas in which the normal occurrences of life take place unremarkably, and the mundanity, the familiarity, causes unsettling reflection—we recognize these sites as spiritually the same as any number of places we find ourselves in on a daily basis. What has happened there, could happen anywhere, to anyone. Even you. 
Fear-mongering is not the film’s goal though, nor is it a clear call to action. Instead it is a call to consciousness. To that end, the project is designed to be a living work, to be continually updated through time as inevitably this cycle repeats itself. It is an elegiac call to remembrance, to not forgetand in that aim, and its construction, it is highly reminiscent of Ira Sach’s marvelous short Last Addresswhich similarly paid tribute to the AIDS crisis by photographing the last residences of famous artists who died in the epidemic of the 80’s. The title is evocative— “Speaking is Difficult”, drawing both on the film’s potent closing address (the only clip to deviate from the structure of the film), but also to highlight the way the public discourse around this topic has been corrupted, through intense ideological feeling, and fraught electoral politics. The film sidesteps this by being blatantly factual, yet more devastatingly political than any op/ed could be. If speaking is difficult, then do not speak, simply present.
Field of Vision supports cinematic journalism as its mission, and the film is simultaneously experimental yet remarkably true to its journalistic spirit. It is startling how effective Schnack’s approach is in evocatively, unflinchingly, confronting its viewers. It basically eschews narrative, a trick that is hard to imagine working in any other context than short film, but is largely reportorial in its adherence to the who, what and where of the journalistic craft. What’s lacking is a why, which it expects the viewer to fill in.
This is a documentary approach in the most classical sense of the term, a literal documentation of events in by-gone way, yet the editorial is implicit throughout. What’s remarkable is that the film need not make the implicit explicit, and it is a film whose narrative is not contained within the film itself, but the viewer’s head. The arc of Speaking in Difficult is contained in the experience of watching it. As a viewer you come with curiosity, then you tease out the structure of the film, and what it is doing. You then you allow yourself to feel the power of the audio/visual juxtaposition, allow yourself to reflect and attempt gestures of empathy. But then you get it, you become jaded and bored. Alright, I get it, will I really need 14min of this? But that’s the point, the flow of the film brilliantly mimics and indicts the routine act of consuming these stories and tragedies, and dares you to push through. In doing so, you succumb to the pressure of the horror, of the repetition of it, the unceasing onslaught, and your smug, protective shell cracks anew. 
A difficult watch, both emotionally and in the simple experience of viewing, but undeniably vital. Field of Vision and AJ Schnack present an experimental short film on mass shootings in America that is unquestionably one of the most potent political statements of the year. 

Speaking is Difficult by AJ Schnack | Documentary Short Film JASON SONDHI



October 1st will mark a year since a young man shot and killed eight fellow-students and a professor at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Oregon. I learned about the unfolding events as we so often do these days—on social media. Over the next two days, I witnessed the cyclical conversation that seems to happen every time a mass shooting occurs. The first reaction is shock and horror, followed quickly by demands and pleas that something be done. Not long after, the finger-pointing begins. The conversation reaches a fever pitch and then, silence—until the next mass shooting takes place.

The shooting in Oregon made me really think about our endless cycle of outrage and inaction. I wanted to confront it artistically, not just this most recent shooting but the patterns and echoes of earlier events of mass violence as well. I decided to make a film about what seemed to be a worsening epidemic. Immediately, I faced the question: How do you make a film about a repeating pattern, where details change but where so much—the police response, the panicked calls for help—echoes the events that came before?

After a young man in Isla Vista, California, killed seven people, including himself, in 2014, the satirical news site the Onion posted an article titled “ ‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Several times since, in the wake of one of these tragedies, the site has reposted the same piece, with only the names of cities and other small details changed.

That bit of dark satire captured a depressing truth, but it also inspired me to create a cinematic response that I hoped would similarly be repeated and reposted when another event occurred. I decided to create a film that would be constantly updated. If there was another mass shooting, we would expand the film to include it.

The initial version of “Speaking Is Difficult” traced twenty-five mass-shooting events over five years, opening with the December, 2015, attacks in which a married couple killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, and moving back across our shared history to 2011. We sent twenty cinematographers to film the places where these events took place, many of which have returned to normalcy, with little to no trace of the murders that happened there. In each of these scenes, we see the places not as they were on the day of the event but weeks, months, even years later; the only sounds are the voices of police dispatchers, 911 operators, and shocked witnesses on the tragic day. Absent this audio, these landscapes of schools and businesses, highways and churches, would create an almost bucolic portrait of America. With the audio present, the portrait reveals horrors in the most unremarkable and unimaginable places.

The expanded version of the film published today includes four recent mass shootings, beginning in Dallas and continuing to Orlando. As the news of these events began to spread this summer, I had a gut check about the project, realizing what it will feel like to expand the film many times in the years to come.

“Speaking Is Difficult” always ends with the same tragic moment: the 2011 shooting outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona, where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords survived an attack that killed six others. It wasn’t just the shocking nature of a brazen assassination attempt on a sitting congresswoman that resonated with me; it was the evidence we have that something profound changed that year. Since 2011, mass-shooting events have more than tripled in frequency, according to data compiled by Mother Jones and analyzed in 2014 by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern Universities. A distinct F.B.I. report came to the same conclusion.

I’ve made a number of films about politicians, and I know that every member of Congress must have imagined himself or herself in Giffords’s shoes after she was shot, and yet they still couldn’t manage to come together to do anything to reduce gun violence. If an attack on one of their own colleagues couldn’t prompt a serious conversation, what could?



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