America is no stranger to school shootings, unfortunately. Amongst the many school shootings in America, there have been a few particular ones that have stood out, the Columbine High School Massacre being one of them. The Columbine High School Massacre was a school shooting and attempted bombing that occurred in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20th, 1999, where 12 students and one teacher were killed.
The Columbine Massacre has become sort of a cultural touchstone. It was the first of its kind and it changed the way America has since responded to what is now known as an “active shooting.” As a result, there have been increased security and safety protocols at schools, ranging from new security technology to active shooting drills. The students who were freshmen during the Columbine shooting experienced this transformation in security first-hand. American students now have always lived in a world with heightened security but for the Columbine class of 2002, their high school experience was altered forever. While most of their freshman year was normal, after the shooting, the rest of their high school experience transformed drastically.
One of these freshmen, Laura Farber, went on to become a cable-TV producer and documentary filmmaker. Her first feature documentary was We Are Columbine. The documentary, released nearly 20 years after the Columbine High School Massacre, focuses on her four fellow classmates and survivors of the massacre and their experience during and after it. The film itself — straightforward, to the point, unflinching in its approach, and with unsentimental honesty — examines one of the greatest American horrors of the past two decades, a horror that is unbelievably prescient today.
There’s Amy, the social cheerleader; Gus, the stoner who skipped school assemblies; Jaimi, the athlete with an older sister who also attended the school; and Zach, the studious soccer player who lived right across from the school. These four students had wildly different high school experiences which help illustrate how each student at Columbine High School had a unique experience on the day of the massacre and moving forward.
Farber also talks to Kiki Leyba, an English teacher at Columbine High School, and Frank DeAngelis, the principal at the time, offering additional perspectives to that day. However, most of the documentary centers around the students.
Unlike many documentaries of these sorts of tragedies where the focus is on the criminals and the crimes they committed, We Are Columbine focuses solely on the survivors, which is really refreshing. In fact, the documentary doesn’t even mention the names of the two killers. The focus on the survivors allows the audience to really understand the impact of the event through their personal stories as opposed to just listening to facts about that day and the progression of events.
The documentary flips between conversations with the survivors, clips from the day of the massacre, and other filler shots that consist of the survivors’ current lives. And while many documentaries have sort of a monotonous tone that can get tiring, the use of the various shots allows Farber to construct a cohesive story of what she and her fellow classmates faced that day and how it changed their lives forever, while also keeping viewers attentive.
The survivors walk the audience through their experiences of that day, discussing how they felt during each moment. As they discuss their memories of the massacre, we learn that they have spoken very little of that day to anyone. Because their experiences were so different, it’s hard for them to talk about the massacre with others. And it’s visible right away that even just agreeing to this documentary at all was incredibly difficult for them.
Without explicitly stating that the massacre affects them to this day, we can see that they are still working through the trauma of their experiences. There are many moments where the survivors have to pause while discussing their stories and Farber allows them to take their time. The close-up shots of the interviews allow the audience to see each survivor process the events of the day as they talk about it.
Amy, Jaimi, and Zach were all able to get out of the building early during the massacre while Gus was locked in a classroom for most of it. Farber includes conversations with them inside the school, offering the audience a better understanding of how it all played out from the students’ perspectives. The survivors occasionally re-enact certain moments or walk us through the halls, and we learn more about the details of the trauma they experienced. For the audience, it humanizes an alien tragedy. We’re almost able to get a sense of how it felt to be there in that moment.
All the survivors agreed that the massacre affected their sense of safety forever. They survey the spaces they walk into, taking account of the exits and any other factors about the environment. Even if they didn’t know those who died that day or weren’t personally harmed, they all faced trauma of some sort from the event.
As for Leyba and DeAngelis, they not only had to work through their own traumas, but they also had to be there for their students. They saw how the class of 2002 changed completely, from hopeful students to young adults who experienced great loss. Although the documentary doesn’t spend too much time on their experiences, it still briefly discusses how it changed the way the school was run, and most importantly, the bond it formed between them and the students who were there during the massacre.
We Are Columbine shows how a terribly traumatic event can permanently change people’s lives no matter how close to or far from that event they were. Many people have experienced some sort of traumatic event once in their lives, and the documentary successfully illustrates the impact trauma has on people’s lives and how they work through it.
Despite all that the survivors of the Columbine Massacre have faced, there’s a strong sense of community. It is in this sense of community that they’re able to find solace and the ability to heal as they work through their shared trauma, albeit in different ways.
We Are Columbine is not a story about the crimes or the death that occurred during the Columbine High School Massacre.
It’s a story about the process of healing in the wake of tragedy.
And, unfortunately, for some of the survivors of the Columbine tragedy, the process of healing hasn’t concluded.
As school shootings continue to plague the face of the nation, the process of healing hasn’t concluded for this film’s audience either.
We Are Columbine is not rated.
Deshna Chitrarasu is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl