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Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014 (2015) Review

Updated on June 19, 2015

Despite its redundant title, this powerful little documentary has mysteriously emerged from HBO as a boon for public consciousness…but also a threat. A sobering meditation on gun violence in America—made up completely of found footage and audio (meaning the creators originated exactly zero percent of the source content)—its impact reflects creative potential for unknown filmmakers with little money and few resources. Of course, even though the materials necessary to craft such a film are more accessible than ever, skill and professionalism in execution is often a little more difficult to come by. Witness YouTube’s countless pages of laughable amateur conspiracy theory documentaries, and you’ll see why it’s taken this format so long to crawl into the spotlight.

Documentarian Shari Cookson, however, is one of those rare professionals willing to dabble in this completely publicly accessible format; together she and editor Nick Doob (Beasts of the Southern Wild) produce, direct, and edit the entire project. It also helps to have the insanely prolific Sheila Nevins (Citizenfour, Taxicab Confessions, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, to name a few) in their corner as Executive Producer. The trio has their own history as well, having worked on HBO’s Paycheck to Paycheck. So, as far as professional, experienced filmmakers go, these guys are nothing to sneeze at.

Clocking in at 66 minutes, this documentary starts with a simple counter, ticking away as it counts upward rapidly. We realize we are witnessing the death toll for a single month—May 20th to June 20th—in 2014. The ticking fades into the background and the show begins. The counter reemerges between segments, however, revealing a soaring number of dead human beings. The interspersal of this astronomical number (over 8,000!) with the names, faces, and stories of particular victims makes the counter all the more devastating.

There are a total of 7-8 vignettes (I got so wrapped up I lost count) ranging in diversity, but all with the same conclusion. The deaths are always violent and unexpected, and often take the form of murder-suicides. The footage consists of cell-phone and home video, security cameras, and photographs from both before and after the tragedies. The audio is either in conjunction with the video or, more often, from the calls of witnesses (usually family members) to police officers. It takes a lot out of you to sit through that many crushed-soul phone calls, but it also brings the reality of these situations home.

But there is more material besides that which is directly related to the gruesome deaths—and this is what both intrigues and troubles me. Think about it: As a filmmaker, if you’re not going to use interviews with family members and friends, or even law enforcement, around these particular events, how do you build empathy for those involved? How do you accurately represent them? Can you?

The solution for Shari and Nick is something that’s right in front of their faces, and ours. Using Tweets, Facebook posts, texts, emails, and more metadata, the filmmakers construct a picture of each victim. Using a randomly selected soundtrack, they convey the ups and downs of their lives and deaths. If all film is manipulation, these guys are the puppetmasters. Yes, it’s effective. Yes, I believe what is chosen for me to see. But that’s all I can do, and that’s the problem.

Now, I don’t think these filmmakers are pushing a single, clearly defined agenda. At least in the talk back after the screening, they claimed they weren’t pushing any (of course, they were on the tail end of a panel of three NRA representatives—for shame, HBO, to consciously limit the conversation so). But just because these victims’ lives weren’t manipulated toward a specific end doesn’t erase the potential threat of this rising medium.

How will you be remembered in your death? Think back over every photo, video, text message, Tweet, post, e-mail, Instagram, etc. through which you have expressed yourself. You have no control over them. You cannot delete, destroy, or deny access to any of it. And that is the curse, which also happens to be a gift in these cases. While we are treated to a harrowing, full-access reflection on the dangers of easily accessible guns in America (albeit one without a message, apparently), we are also treated to a harrowing look at our own futures.

So how will you be remembered? However you’re able to be represented, context or none. All due respect to the victims and their families, perhaps the true requiem here is for our privacy.

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