Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) remains in some ways the foundational film about mass shootings, even over Bowling for Columbine (2002). Michael Moore’s documentary indicted both US gun-lovers and the country’s institutionalized violence, militarization, and general culture of fear. But Elephant’s narrative ambiguity, dedication to realism (most notably the use of long takes and limited close-ups), and Brechtian components (a separation into chapters and recursive chronology) made it more like a Rorschach test. Did the shooters do it because they were bullied? Sexually confused? Played too many violent video games? Something else? Or are these all merely scapegoats for people with ideological priors to ascribe to fundamentally incomprehensible acts? Perhaps the film has none of this on its mind, and it was merely an exploitative cash-in on a real tragedy? Bowling for Columbine may have changed a few minds, but only among viewers who were already open to its thesis. Elephant demonstrated how eager we are to see our views parroted back at us.
More than 20 years after Columbine, mass shootings — especially school shootings — are ingrained in the public consciousness, and filmmakers, activists, politicians, pundits, lobbyists, advocacy groups, and nonprofits mostly prefer to bypass the messiness of uncertainty and multi-causality. We now have competing cottage industries of choir-preachers telling anyone who will listen (that is, groups that only include people who already agree with them) that their hobby horse is the cause of or solution to this issue. The problem with such an approach is not that it is often cynical, but that it is sometimes sincere. Todd Chandler’s Bulletproof, the latest cinematic investigation of the school shooting phenomenon, demonstrates this great paradox.
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The documentary avoids examining or even mentioning any specific shooting. It takes place at various schools, none of which have names that have been seared into our minds after wall-to-wall news coverage and subsequent institutional inaction. Bulletproof instead observes lockdown drills, school safety trade shows, and teacher training seminars. We hear a police officer discuss the uses of electronic locks, surveillance cameras, and tracking devices. We watch consultants praise the virtues of tactical gear and a trained, armed teacher. At a trade show, a salesperson touts the benefits of bulletproof whiteboards and desks, which retail for about 20 times the cost of their mundane counterparts — that’s nothing compared to the amount paid to a speaker who carves a mental picture for teachers of pointing a gun at an armed student and preparing to pull the trigger. It turns out there are many people who will get richer as long as kids keep getting shot.
Bulletproof does not make a show of this. There are no charts explaining how money is allocated, no text telling us how these industries have grown, no talking heads to tell us that this is a grift. With the same subtlety, Chandler demonstrates that lockdown drills cause more problems than they solve, and that all the money used on this security theater could better be spent actually educating children. Everyone from principals and superintendents to resource officers admits this, but funds are commonly earmarked for “safety.” Sure, someone with politics somewhere to the right of this writer’s might argue that all this is necessary, but such a viewer is unlikely to stumble upon this film, and would also not be convinced by anything that marshals evidence and presents an argument more explicitly. (In fact, such an approach tends to harden the beliefs of people invested in contrary opinions.)
More alarming than the cynics is the sincerity of Vy Tran. She tells Chandler how she grew up in a dangerous neighborhood, and after hearing a neighbor get shot, she decided to go into business making “affordable” bulletproof hoodies. Her company, Wonder Hoodie, is much more affordable than its competitors, but it’s still too expensive for the target audience. Tran’s solution? Sell en masse to gunmakers and other vultures so she can donate a handful of her products to the kids “who really need” them. She butters her bread by enriching the people invested in perpetuating both danger and fear, but does so believing she is offering a solution to that danger. Chandler’s filmmaking again betrays nothing merely giving Tran enough rope, but it is the most exemplary moment in the film. “Imagine if we monetized the rot,” a fictitious neoliberal once proposed. Imagine no more.